Viz Muniz' ascension into the high-profile elite of contemporary art came through happenstance, biting perfectionism and the soft wit of intelligence. In Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer, a recently published autobiography, Muniz writes of the necessity of humor: "I have never, ever looked in the mirror and considered the charm of my own seriousness." Muniz’s art also rides the line between absurdity and profound meaning. From a peanut and jelly portrait of the Mona Lisa to the Last Supper in chocolate, Muniz has become famous from his faithful renditions of master works executed in deeply unconventional ways. These portraits are captured through photography and he destroys the original upon completion. On average, the photographs sell for $5,000 to $15,000 but recently “his painting Action Painter went for US$ 45 thousand at Sotheby´s auction.” His international popularity has led to a fair deal of criticism not only in the art world but also on the streets. Some consider Muniz an iconoclast; others just lazy. Yet, a highly conscientious man lies behind the hype. So when it comes to the spider web of intent that surrounds his art, no one unties Vik Muniz better than he does himself. His silver-tongued talent for explanation has engrained him in the psyche of popular culture as not only an artist but as a mind.
The son of a con artist/ waiter and switchboard operator, Muniz grew up poor on the outskirts of the megapolis Sao Paulo, in Brazil. The city’s fringes had a profound influence on him as he explains, "the edge explains the city: it makes us see in its gardens and parks the urban push to implode. The edge makes us see what the city does not want to be, its cosmic aureole of dejection and refuse; the garbage heaps and cemeteries, one finds on the way to the airports." To him, these edges defined both society and its antithesis: a vast area of nothingness that is neither city nor country, T.S. Eliot’s famed Wasteland. In this caustic environment, Muniz somehow flourished. He started reading early but could not write. So instead, he explained himself by drawing. He sketched incessantly with little respect for other distractions, including school. Luckily, this single-mindedness led to the first of a series of coincidences that would shape his career. One day, at the tender age of 14, his teacher sent him to the principal's office to teach him a lesson about doodling in class. After scolding the boy, the principle looked at the drawings and recognized his talent. He encouraged Muniz to apply for a contest the school county was holding that awarded a two-year scholarship to an academic studio. Muniz won. After two years at the studio, Muniz continued his artistic studies on his own and is considered to be self-taught. “The factors that contribute to a person becoming an artist have nothing to do with when he starts,” writes Muniz, “they have more to do with when everyone else stops.” With the faithful companion of retrospect, the artist acknowledges that he might have never been the artist he is something miraculous hadn’t happened, in 1983. While walking home late one night, the 22-year old Vik came across two drunks fighting in the street. One man blindly shot off his gun and the bullet penetrated Muniz's leg. Afraid of litigation and coincidently being quite wealthy, the man offered to pay him off. The price? A one-way ticket to Chicago.
With only serendipity on his side, Muniz moved to the United States with no knowledge of the English language and no cash. During his first months, he worked various odd jobs and got to know the city by roaming the streets on a used bike. It was through these bike rides that English began to take form. He memorized sign after sign, until the incoherent words matched an image his brain had already defined. Now every spoon, lover, apple, mop and grin had two titles, two twin definitions. Thrust back into art, he worked in a frame shop where he meticulously copied famous paintings to be sold at furniture stores. This provided him with an education in discipline and a comprehensive knowledge of the masters. The arduous job of repainting what was already well established had him toying again with the notion of doubles. On weekends, he visited the Metropolitan museum to immerse himself in the classics but often left disappointed. Their precision lacked imagination and too closely resembled reality to invoke the sublime. He began to posit "in the same way rereading a book says more about what has changed in ourselves between readings than about the book itself, recurrent artistic themes serve to indicate a cultural change in attitudes towards images in general." This basic idea set the tone of his work to come, as Muniz wholeheartedly contends that “a copy of a copy is always an original thing.” With this Warholian belief in mind, he started translating iconic images from different periods of art history in a contemporary diction by using materials that we do not normally associate with art, such as sugar, spaghetti sauce, string, diamond, caviar, toy soldiers and ashes.
Simultaneously, he became obsessed with perception and began photographing his work. Due to the materials he used, photography became a practical way to frame something that was perishable by nature. At this point, he questioned his identity as an artist because photographs were the final product of his work. In a 1999 interview, he explained this conflict; “I first tackled these issues as a curious person, not as an artist” (Richards 230.) His 1992 show, titled Individuals, was one of his first fusions between art and photography. Having just returned, broke and alone, from Paris where he was living until his U.S. citizenship came through, he discovered he only had one small piece of white clay in his studio. He began making sculptures, sixty in total, and took blurry photographs that masked their scale. He then posted these photos in a gallery with pedestals of various sizes below them. “Walk towards anything and it transforms,” Muniz contends, “Metamorphoses always happen with distance and proximity.” Through careful experiments with perception, he reinserted a well-needed dose of ambiguity into art. We innately trust photographs but never really question the image behind them. Muniz asks us to look harder and forces cotton balls to look like clouds and then like Durer’s famous praying hands. All his compositions rely on the interplay of identity conflicts in the objects that form them.
Up until recently, Muniz’s use of universal images downplayed any Brazilian influence in his work. In 1998, he produced a body of work called, Aftermath, for the Sao Paulo Bienal that played on social issues within the city. Inspired by an earlier project where he made black and white portraits of the children of sugarcane farmers in the Caribbean using sugar granules as a medium, Muniz was eager to connect with the street children of his native city. These kids were drastically different from the fresh-faced ones he had met in the Caribbean. At eight years old, they were already jaded, skittish and victims to violent statistics: 30% of them had HIV or AIDS . Muniz eventually gained their trust and photographed them in famous art poses. He painted them using debris he had collected from the streets after Ash Wednesday of Carnaval. Yet, Muniz’s real return to nationalistic themes came when he represented his culture at the Venice Biennale in 2001. He writes sentimentally that “when the exhibition finally opened… I sensed I’d come to the end of a long struggle to be accepted by my own country. Brazilians were finally proud of my unschooled, unorthodox, cross-cultural and popular vision of art and its role in Brazilian culture.” The exhibit marked a slow return to Brazilian subject matter that has appeared more and more in his recent work, including portraits of current president Lula and musician Seu Jorge.
Another unequivocal connection Muniz maintains with Brazil is women. Despite his many years in the States, nearly all his relationships have been with Brazilian or other Latin women. In an interview with Revista Trip, he says, “it dawned on me that language works physically, also. There is something I like to say: ‘It is much better to kiss in your own language.’ Kissing in Portuguese is entirely different from kissing in English.” He is currently married to his second Brazilian wife, an artist, named Janaina Tschape. The couple and their young child split their time between Rio de Janeiro and Brooklyn, New York. Through this partnership, Muniz has reinserted himself into a Brazilian context that he left long ago, perhaps drawing on his contention that “one always has to leave the place where one was born. You've got to leave to be able to come back.” Muniz’ artistic career, like his life, has been a slow return to home and all the complications that accompany it.