Pictures in Clouds
by Kirby Gookin
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air.
Shakespeare, “Antony and Cleopatra”, (IV, xii, 2-7)
Vik Muniz is an illusionist. Better yet, Vik Muniz is a picture tease. Like the transmutations of a quick-change artist, what you see is not always what you get. However, Muniz’s sleight of hand doesn’t trick the eye with mirrors, but with the lens of a camera. Like many a magician, Muniz capitalizes on our propensity to be misguided by our preconceptions. He exploits our tendency to draw conclusions, often too quickly, from what we think we see. His art reminds us of the old adage that appearances can be deceiving.
Over the past decade Muniz has been teasing us with artful lies by combining his skilled draftsmanship with photography to create hybrid images that capture one medium in the matrix of another. Whether one looks at Muniz’s portrait of Jackson Pollock poured from liquid chocolate syrup, his head of Medusa inscribed in a plate of spaghetti marinara, or his landscapes fashioned from thousands of yards of thread into richly textured pictures that recall the paintings of Van Ruysdael and Monet, one first sees the seamless photographic image, only to find out that something inside it is amiss.
Like the optical illusion “duck/rabbit” in which the mind’s eye enables us to see the single unified image as either a duck or rabbit, and to switch between the two, Muniz’s works engage a similar visual dynamic. Where we see a portrait, we find the drippings of chocolate; in a landscape we discover the dense skeins of string. The result leaves us battling between one and the other as his images defy a fixed apprehension.
This optical interplay is readily apparent in Muniz’s stereoptic photographs from the portfolio “Principia”(1997). While adhering to the formal vocabulary of objective scientific data magnified through a microscope, close inspection reveals that they are in fact scientific follies fabricated in Muniz’s studio out of everyday household items. In an image that first appears to be a magnification of facial hair protruding from skin pores, one realizes that it is actually strands of black rubber piping strung through the holes of a colander. While the stereoscopic lens that accompanies the works provides the ability to see the illusion in 3-D, it also acts as a placebo for enforcing the illusion’s authenticity. The scientific nature of the apparatus lends an authority to the pictures that forces us to work that much harder to see the “real” image. However, having invested a little effort, Muniz’s works ultimately elicit a discovery and the inevitable pause where we catch ourselves uttering A-Haa!
For “Clouds” Muniz’s first larger scale public art venture, he has conjured an anti-monument that is the very antithesis of the weighty lump of bronze plopped down in some local public square. “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. As pedestrians walk along the city’s sidewalks, and people gaze out the windows of their homes and offices, New York’s skyline will become the backdrop upon which the steamy exhaust of a crop duster will draw the outlines of puffy, white cartoon-like clouds. Visible from Wall Street to Harlem, from New Jersey to Brooklyn and Queens, New Yorkers will be able to take a momentary respite from the city’s urban rhythms, and pause in unity, to stare upward, with curiosity, wonderment, and perhaps bewilderment, as the vaporous clouds take form and then gently dissipate back into the atmosphere.
This is not the first time Muniz has worked with clouds. For “Equivalents” (1993), he once stretched white cotton balls into seemingly ethereal tufted formations and photographed them to look like portraits of cumulus clouds set against a clear sky. Playing with that age old practice of looking skyward and seeing images in the animated white nebula of steam, Muniz pulled and teased the cotton to form a menagerie of images. The resulting photographs capture those supposedly serendipitous moments when an amorphous blob suddenly takes on a familiar likeness. In Muniz’s vision, we see a fluffy teapot, a snail, two hands in prayer, and a man rowing a boat. This projection of one’s perceptions onto the otherwise dumb, steamy matrix not only forms the basis of an everyman’s art (we need no pencil or paper only our imaginations), but it also plays with that “higher” artistic formulation, once suggested by Leonardo who earnestly recommended that the young artist, in order to “quicken the spirit of inventionÉ, look at a wall spotted with stains” to “discover a resemblance to various landscapes” from which “to devise some scene.”
For Muniz’s “Clouds”, however, the sky drawings do not give anthropomorphic shape to the etherous billows. Instead, he has drawn clouds as clouds, formed from their very own vaporous steam. And so when we look up into the sky, hovering within the oceanic atmosphere there will be fakes, sometimes free floating in isolation, sometimes set among other natural cloud formations. No attempt is made at assimilation. Only artifice remains.
Historically, the rendering of clouds has been considered to be the ultimate demonstration of an artist’s mastery over nature, (think Constable whose cloud studies were considered to be so effective, he was described by one of his contemporaries as more of a meteorologist than artist). Today, Muniz turns this illusionistic paradigm of artistic prowess inside out. Instead of puffy dense thickets, he gives us pillowy outlines. Like caricatures, their shapes are akin to what one might find in a young child’s drawing, where family, house and yard lie below the schematic projections of a bright yellow orb with straight rays projecting out and the curvaceous thought bubble clouds floating beside it. Muniz’s clouds are schematic renderings. They are made from the same inventive fabric artfully described by Kandinsky in his poem “Hills.” Like Kandinsky’s rounded hills, Muniz’s clouds are “all different sizes, but always the same shape: Broad at the bottom, with swollen sides and rounded tops. Simple, [and] ordinary’, the kind one always imagines and never sees.”
– Kirby Gookin, 2001