Progression of Art
At first sight, Clown Skull looks like an actual human skull with a strange, protruding round nose that is the same color and texture as bone. However, it is made of plastic and other materials.
Muniz's artistic practice started after his move to New York City, where he rented a studio. His earliest art consisted of sculptures, which according to the artist, was a concrete way to use a separate creative muscle than he had for his commercial work in the advertising industry. Ironically though, many of the themes he explored through this medium would appear later when he primarily used photography as his chosen form.
Clown Skull comes from the Relics series, which drew upon the definition of relic as referring to an idolized or valued object from the past. Muniz's relics, though, also contained a dark sense of humor, showcasing not only the relic but turning it into a contemporary object of multiple interpretations. For instance, the skull makes references to both the European tradition of skulls and skeletons serving as reminders of death in memento mori still life paintings and popular culture's tendency to interpret clowns as frightening (Stephen King's It, John Wayne Gacy, etc.) Other Relics included a pre-Columbian pot stuffed with a coffee filter like a modern day breakfast appliance, and an Ashanti sculpture artifact turned into a video game joystick. What results is a humorous commentary on the nature of representation and how objects from the past circulate in the present.
The Relics works introduced Muniz's themes of representation, appropriation, and history, which would become more important in his later photographic work. They also represented a personal milestone, marked by (as the artist said) a "comprehension of the object as an image and, provoked by this comprehension, a kind of identity crisis of the object itself, a discrepancy between what is expected from the material and what it offers."
After a professional photographer took photos of these works for a gallery, Muniz decided to photograph the objects himself. According to him, the professional pictures "seemed to go against the three-dimensional nature and dynamics" that he had sought to imbue in his objects. This episode ended up inspiring him and soon after that he began making two-dimensional things solely to photograph them.
Plastic, paint, wood, metal, plexiglass - Private collection
Memory Rendering of Kiss at Times Square
Memory Rendering of Kiss at Times Square appropriates one of the most famous works of photojournalism by the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt in Life magazine. The image celebrates the end of World War II, in which a sailor in the US Navy grabbed a nurse and kissed her upon learning that Japan had surrendered.
Upon his arrival in the United States in 1983, Muniz bought the book Best of Life, a collection of photographs published in Life magazine. It presented photographs from historical moments such as the moon landing, the Vietnam War, and the Kent State shootings, and iconic images of pop cultural heroes such as John Lennon. The artist recalls that the book brought him comfort, acting as a kind of family album - "family of humankind." After losing it, Muniz decided to undergo a process of recreation via drawing exercises. For two years, he drew what remained of the photographs from his memory, filling in what he couldn't remember with his imagination. After keeping the drawings in a shoebox for a while, he decided to photograph them somewhat out of focus and print the images with half tone dots (some of them on newsprint). After noticing that no one questioned the photographs' authenticity, Muniz realized that he could leave out many of the original details in his renderings and the spectator would fill in the blanks themselves.
The process involved in creating Muniz's work adds layers of personal meaning to the original. His interference in the image calls attention to the fact that it is a product of the artist's imagination and not a straightforward reproduction. This addresses one of the fundamental questions of photography, including photojournalism: what role does the photographer play in the creation of the image? This work led Muniz to further explore the representational and highly mediated nature of photographs, as well as the idea that documentation can be transformed into an art form.
Memory Rendering illustrates several themes: the obvious use of previous sources as inspiration for further works of art, the relationship of an individual to "the news" and to larger histories, and the imperfections and inconsistencies of memory itself.
Gelatin silver print - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Valentina, The Fastest
The Sugar Children series originated after a trip to the Caribbean, where Muniz played with the children from the island of Saint Kitts for several days on a black sandy beach. After meeting the children's parents, he learned about the harsh conditions of the sugar plantations at which they worked, and was intrigued by the contrast between the happiness of the children and the sadness of their parents. Inspired by a poem from Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar entitled Açúcar (Sugar), Muniz remembers: "It occurred to me that sugar had sapped the sweetness from those people." He returned to New York with Polaroids of the children, reproducing them into temporary images "by sifting various types of sugar onto black paper." He then photographed the images before discarding the sugar into a jar with the original photograph glued outside on the glass. When he exhibited the series for the first time, Muniz placed each corresponding jar next to its final photograph. Although the resulting photographs appear at first glance to belong to the canon of stereotypical tourist photos of happy children in developing countries, the use of sugar simultaneously references the candy and sweetness of youth, its impermanence, and the manual labor awaiting the children once they reach adulthood.
Muniz defines this work as the "founding moment" of his career. After years of drawing photographs, Muniz began to photograph drawings. This idea revolutionized his practice. Instead of using photography to appropriate and document the work of another artist, Muniz made the process of creating a work of art and documenting it into the main focus of his work. Muniz soon began to create ephemeral drawings using perishable, inexpensive, and impermanent materials such as chocolate, soil, dust, peanut butter, jam, wire, and garbage.
Curator and historian Pedro Corrêa do Lago asserts that the series is "a fundamental contribution to the thinking and practice of art at the turn of the century."
Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Muniz's first large-scale public art project took place in February 2001, when the New York-based non-profit Creative Time realized the artist's work Clouds. Using a modified crop-dusting plane, a skywriter drew white cartoon-like clouds designed by Muniz over the Manhattan skyline on four separate occasions over a period of six days. The action occurred on a monumental scale, contrasting with the public art that people walked past every day and ignored, or even with conventional skywriting. Clouds jolted people out of their routine and forced them to stop and look - if for no other reason, then for the fact that the image would soon disappear.
As writer and curator Kirby Gookin wrote, Muniz "conjured an anti-monument." Clouds "lifts art off its pedestal, removes it from park and plaza, and sends it soaring thousands of feet into the sky to be seen by millions of potential viewers," he remarked. Similar to Gordon Matta-Clark's cutting of holes into architecture slated for demolition, Muniz's Clouds created a work of art from the idea of absence: there was no art object, since the medium of the work was smoke, and this is one of the few mature works by Muniz in which photography did not play a direct role in the creation.
Even though the work was a departure from Muniz's use of photography, it maintained his common theme of pinpointing the relationship between illusion and perception. Clouds, in their ephemeral signature way of denoting forms and familiar objects from life became a perfect subject to further examine this theme. The artist had already worked with clouds in his Equivalents series of 1993, which consisted of pieces of cotton worked into familiar shapes, such as a pig, a snail, and a teapot. In 1995, he made additional works with the same title named after Alfred Stieglitz's photographs of the sky and clouds from the 1920. In both Equivalents and Clouds, the cloud was not really what it appeared to be at first glance, provoking a reconsideration of the work.
The work also added to a category of art in which artists create ephemeral or temporary events that are seen once but remain forever documented in their absence by the use of photography. Other artists such as Andy Goldsworthy are noted for this type of installation, using elements of fleeting nature.
Muniz created this image of Marilyn Monroe from diamond dust placed against a black background, which he then photographed.
The work affirms the strong influence of Pop Art in his practice, drawing from the movement's central concept of incorporating imagery from commercial products, television, and movies as a critique of popular culture. Like Andy Warhol, Muniz also worked in advertising before embarking on an artistic career. After Monroe tragically died, Warhol used this image of Monroe in a series of silkscreen paintings to question the cult of celebrity and reveal the public's fascination with mortality. Here, Muniz uses the same image to evoke the superficial glamour of Hollywood through his choice of material, in this case the dust from diamonds. The use of dust, however, also evokes the fragility of the subject and the impermanence of both life and the composition. Muniz has also created diamond portraits of other deceased celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, and Marlene Dietrich. Although many artists have created their own versions of these celebrated women, Muniz's use of material lends an added level of interpretation to the familiar images, expressing his own opinion onto the mainstream imagery, and making them unique once again.
As in much of his practice, Muniz transforms iconic works from the art historical canon by recreating them with unconventional materials. This strategy is part of his longstanding goal of making art accessible to a wider audience. Through the use of familiar images, Muniz is able to attract the observer's gaze, at the same time provoking surprise through the exploration of the work's actual materials. "Once the surprise is gone, the artist educates the spectator's gaze, stimulating their satisfaction in unpeeling the many layers of interpretation," writes historian Pedro Corrêa do Lago.
Chromogenic print mounted on Sintra - Private collection
For three years, Muniz worked with garbage pickers from Jardim Gramacho, the site of one of the largest trash dumps in the world, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The artist persuaded the workers to participate in his project, shot their portraits, and asked them to pick garbage to help sculpt their portraits in his studio. The result of this collaboration was the creation of large-scale "drawings" consisting of garbage that portrayed the workers themselves, which Muniz then photographed.
The goal of this work was to transform the lives of the people involved in its creation. The workers of Jardim Gramacho belonged to the lowest level of Brazilian society, however, this project brought them into contact with the elite world of galleries and art auctions. Muniz educated the participants about his work as he interacted with them, gave them some of the final prints and proceeds, and brought the head of the garbage pickers' collective to London to view the auction in person.
Muniz selected canonical portraits from the history of art for inspiration in this series. As the title of this photograph suggests, the image appropriates the Neoclassical French painter Jacques-Louis David's iconic Death of Marat (1793), in which the painter portrayed his friend, a radical journalist and politician active during the French Revolution, moments after he was murdered in his bathtub. Other photographs from this series draw inspiration from a Renaissance Madonna and Jean-François Millet's The Sower. Here, the model is Sebastião Santos (known as Tião), the youthful and charismatic president of the cooperative of garbage collectors. The selection of the work by David intentionally draws parallels between Marat and Tião, implying that the two men share similar roles as politically subversive leaders and thus similar levels of revolutionary potential. This image also references concepts unique to Brazilian art, including antropofagia, the "cannibalization" or use and transformation of European sources, and director Glauber Rocha's idea of an aesthetic of hunger, which addresses the role of poverty in Brazilian culture.
The documentary film Waste Land, directed by Lucy Walker chronicled the creation of Marat (Sebastião) and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. In the movie, Muniz states: "I'm at this point in my career where I'm trying to step away from the realm of fine arts because I think it's a very exclusive, very restrictive place to be. What I want to be able to do is to change the lives of people with the same materials they deal with every day." For this reason, Marat (Sebastião) and the other photographs associated with Waste Land make connections to the idea of social practice, a recent movement of the past twenty years in which artists develop works with the intention of collaborating with and improving local communities. However, while the participants received the proceeds from the sale of Muniz's work, the larger question of whether this has made any lasting difference in their lives remains.
Trash (clothes, plastics) - Private collection