Artist Vik Muniz uses unexpected media for art series

Chocolate syrup. Diamonds. Plastic army men. Cocaine. Ketchup. Vik Muniz employs all of the above and more in his whimsical, conceptual artwork.

Vik Muniz: Reflex, an exhibition of the Brazilian-born artist’s work, lights up the Miami Art Museum with its bright colors and atypical media. Muniz produces art through series of particular media, photographing specific objects that he has meticulously arranged into instantly recognizable shapes. For Muniz’s audience, squirts of ketchup become multiple portraits of Jackie O, or blobs of caviar take the shape of Dracula.

MAM’s show features works from all of Muniz’s major series, all simple, aptly named descriptions of their contents. For example, in Muniz’s “Pictures of Magazines” series, millions of hole punches from magazine pages compose the collages featured in his larger-than-life photographs; “Pictures of Chocolate” depict Muniz’s chocolate syrup creations frozen in glossy perfection by photographs, and so on.

While the exhibit displays more than 100 pieces of Muniz’s art, the closely related “Monads” and “Rebus” series in particular grab the eye. “Monads” takes the philosophical concept that all things are made of tiny living particles and runs with it. Here, Muniz arranges battalions of plastic soldier figurines and their various microscopic paraphernalia into clear representations of recognizable objects. Hordes of armymen become a remarkable reproduction of a famous photograph of a young Civil War soldier in “Toy Soldier.”

Similarly, “Rebus,” a play on the picture puzzles of the same name, does the same with mass quantities of various low-quality children’s toys. The effect is akin to that of a high-contrast black and white photograph, except Muniz can transform hot pink feathers, multicolored beads, rainbow magnets, and day-glo squirt guns into a massive, mournful self-portrait, as in “I Am Too Sad to Tell You,” after Bas Jan Ader.

Muniz’s masterful camerawork shines in each piece, as the clarity of his zoomed-in prints has viewers practically begging for tactile gratification. One cannot help but yearn to reach out and touch the prints to confirm that yes, the squares that make up his “Pictures of Color” are indeed Pantone color chips, labels still attached. But don’t pigeonhole Muniz as a mere photographer; his ability to manipulate such varied and unconventional materials proves him as a master of collage, painting, drawing, sculpture, and more.

But in order to truly appreciate Muniz’s work, one must understand his process. MAM informs its attendees of the work behind the finished product throughout the exhibit. Factor in chocolate syrup’s one-hour drying time, and Muniz’s still-wet representation of Jackson Pollack while painting becomes infinitely more impressive. “Monads” and “Rebus” are more complicated than they appear; Muniz must factor distortion into his arrangements. Thus, by forming elongated trapezoids of toy jumble, his shapes shift into the perfect rectangles of prints when photographed from above at an angle. Muniz earns more respect when the viewer realizes his portraits of Caribbean children in “The Sugar Children” are actually tracings in sugar granules painstakingly sprinkled with silver nitrate powder.

One of his most inventive and public displays of artwork recently graced the Miami sky. In conjunction with the Reflex exhibit, Muniz replicated his “Cloud Cloud” pieces from Feb. 9 through 12 over the city. By drawing the shape of a cloud in the sky with a skywriting plane, Muniz juxtaposes the perception of a cloud with actual clouds. The result pleases with its simple charm, adding a cartoonish fantasy element to the everyday sky.

In such a comprehensive show, Muniz is bound to disappoint in spots. His “Old Cheyenne” (“Monads”) falls below par compared to the rest of the series in its failure to form a crisp, distinct image. “Waterlilies,” after Monet (“Pictures of Magazines”), while impressive in size, falls short of achieving the effect of the famous impressionist’s brushstrokes. While his tribute to Chuck Close in “Pictures of Color” delights, his corresponding nod to Gerhard Richter bleeds into fuzzy oblivion.

Most troubling is his most recent series, “Mounds,” which contains little more than snapshots of material mishmash thrown together. While MAM’s plaque descriptions assert that the series “provides curious portraits of consumer culture,” the photographs range from loosely themed to disgustingly random. “Brillo Pads” raises eyebrows with its materials list, which includes curry powder, pubic hair, and edible worms.

Despite its minor missteps, Vik Muniz: Reflex delights with its creative flair, making the exhibit a thoroughly enriching experience. With free student admission, convenient location, and long run time, there is no reason to miss this show. Miami Art Museum, located at 101 West Flagler Street, is a few steps from the Government Center MetroRail station and will run Vik Muniz: Reflex until May 28. Whirlwind art aficionados, take heed: with this ample assemblage of art, don’t expect to rush through. In order to appreciate Muniz’s skill, process, and attention to detail, allot a significant chunk of time to devote to this extraordinary exhibit.

Hannah Bae can be contacted