Vik Muniz’s photographic work is best when form and content align, when he merges playful visual deceptions with deeper social and aesthetic implications. His Pictures of Garbage series, made in collaboration with Brazilian catadores – garbage pickers – in the mid-oughts, for example, included elements of political activism and social practice. In his Pictures of Pigment works from 2007, he utilized unlikely materials to remake art historical touchstones, photographing sand-painting-like compositions to approximate paintings by Gustave Klimt, Claude Monet, and others as he mined the temporality of making a picture.
Muniz’s current work, on view at Rena Bransten Gallery through October 28, involves a less effective merger of photographs with actual objects, such as torn paper, yarn, and lace. Each piece in Handmade questions, in a Where’s Waldo? fashion, what is the photograph and what is the actual: Can you spot the scraps of colored paper in the photograph of the same material? While there is some fun to be had in discovering the seams, as a group, the works (all 2017) succumb to their gimmickry and confusing visual decisions. Many appear to be random color studies, but some seem to be in the style of notable artists – the thin yarn stripes of Handmade: Event Horizon (small), vaguely reference Agnes Martin, whereas Handmade: The Burano Suit (yellow background) creates a loose pattern with lace butterflies that evokes Damien Hirst’s insect paintings. But the references and rationale are hazy – why look at Hirst now, if indeed that’s what Muniz is doing?
A few of the pieces do resonate visually – Handmade: Primal forms (green) 2, features gum-like blobs of colored clay (shades of Hannah Wilke?) affixed to a photograph of the same, and the monochromatic Handmade: Bound (3), white cotton rope wrapped around an inkjet print (early Christo packages?). Ultimately, the works feel like water-treading exercises, which hopefully will lead to a more satisfying mix of ingredients.