In more than 50 new works at Sikkema Jenkins, Vik Muniz steps back from a transfixing formula—equally effective in the favelas, the suburbs, and the ivory towers of the art world—to explore the underlying formal structures of visual counterfeiting. Forgoing politicized materials (sugar, chocolate, garbage) and media critique (image memes from mass culture and art history), Muniz combines photography, assemblage and collage in widely diverse abstractions that ingeniously confuse the eye, much like the shallow wall-scapes of John Peto and William Harnett, with their palpable nails, straps and envelopes.
Though certain works clearly play on icons of abstraction, none mimic particular paintings in the manner of Muniz’s numerous photo-sculptural pastiches of museum masterpieces—all representational, unless you count the work-in-progress on Jackson Pollock’s studio floor, which Muniz rendered with gooey chocolate license in an otherwise strict 1997 refashioning of a Hans Namuth photograph. The new work likewise skims loosely, by and large, over generic tropes of abstraction. Hints of Picabia and Arp, Hirst and Tomaselli, and so on, are teases, designed to pull the viewer into Muniz’s interweaving of absence and presence, a game which can get dizzy with permutations. If anything, Muniz sometimes overplays his hand, making easy pickings of a sliced and partly reassembled Bridget Riley wave; a very Gerhard Richter color chart, in which crumpled color samples cast crisp shadows; an Agnes Martin homage made of colored threads, of which only a few impostors are real; and a beautiful Barnett Newman-sized work made from vertical stripes of colored paper with ripped white edges, alongside photographic prints of same—many of which, devilishly, have been ripped, or “zipped,” in turn. Any campiness, however, dissolves at the close range necessary for deciphering what’s what. Other works with projecting objects or ruptures —a grove of cylinders, a sheet of heavy paper seemingly sprayed with bullets—dispel their illusions farther back, especially as the gallery lighting is too soft to match the photographic shadows.
In the back room, a suite of works named after Joseph Albers’s Interaction of Color explores the building blocks of deception. One work consists of a fan of blue sheets with a horizontal strip of translucent tracing paper laid across—except it’s not translucent, but cut from a grayed-out photograph of the exact spot. If the distance from Albers’s pedagogy to here is rather slight, the true subject of the exercise is Magritte’s paintings of paintings which block the landscapes they depict. Such lucid—and broadly popular—Möbius-strip surrealism is grist for the mill of Muniz’s larger ambitions.