Photographer who created 'Clayton Days' exhibit uses art to overturn preconceptions

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The 2013 Carnegie International has deservedly received the lion's share of attention since its Oct. 5 opening, but there are other excellent arts offerings in the city featuring artists of high caliber. One of those is "Clayton Days Revisited: A Project by Vik Muniz" at the Frick Art Museum through Oct. 27.

Brazilian-born and New York City-based, Mr. Muniz was the first artist-in-residence at the Frick Art & Historical Center in 1999. The decision to sponsor a living artist was controversial given that the center was founded to conserve Clayton, the Gilded Age home of 19th-century industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his family, and an art collection drawn from the 13th to 18th centuries.

The staff, looking for ways to make the institution contemporarily relevant, decided to invite a photographer as its inaugural artist. At the time, Linda Benedict-Jones, now Carnegie Museum of Art curator of photography, was curator of education at the Frick.

They reasoned the medium "would be easy -- simple and clean," said Sarah Hall, Frick director of curatorial affairs. "Little did we realize the project would involve 27 costumed people and two rented ponies."

Mr. Muniz's "Clayton Days," comprising 65 photographs exhibited at the Frick in 2000, was a critical and conceptual success. That series is presented in a new configuration along with 10 works made since by Mr. Muniz including the entire "Pictures of Garbage" series, an impetus for the 2010 documentary film and Academy Award nominee "Wasteland."

Ms. Hall made her remark while introducing Mr. Muniz, who entranced a sold-out audience at the Frick last week with a talk that was an effortless mix of populist presentation and philosophical discourse.

Mr. Muniz, who was born in 1961 in Sao Paulo, was sent to the principal when his math teacher discovered him drawing in class. The 14-year-old expected to be scolded but instead became the school's representative in an art competition. He won first prize, a two-year scholarship to an academic drawing school. At the art school, he began to wonder what a drawing was and what compels people to make them.

"Drawing connects us all here," he told the audience. "Everyone makes drawings as a child. Why do we stop making drawings?

"Thirty thousand years ago a guy walks into a cave and sees the shape of a boar. He thinks of one he hunted. He thinks of the sweat of the animal. The chase. The blood. The taste. The party after. Then he looks again. It's just a shape on the wall. Unhappy with that he takes a stick, adds an eye, or a tail. This man is the first artist.

"After fire, representation is the second most important discovery. It's a way of creating a symbolic exchange. Drawing and theater both involve being fooled momentarily."

As an impish aside he added, "Economics, religion, politics all involve being fooled longer."

Over time Mr. Muniz's curiosity expanded to trying to understand how people see, a topic he addresses when he speaks at neurological conferences. An example of this "exploring of visual narratives" is looking at a large painting hanging on a wall. Contrasted with reading a book, which is held at a fixed distance, a viewer often moves around to see an artwork from different angles. "It's not an image coming toward you. You are coming to the image. And that changes everything."

Seen from afar it's a picture, "utterly mental." Close up it's paint, "something [made] from the ground, from animals. You don't want to see either. You're there to see where they come together. This is the sublime in art."

Mr. Muniz's medium is photography, but his process involves creating something to photograph. He spoke of various series including landscapes made of thread and portraits made of sugar crystals. He had to work quickly when he drew with melted chocolate due to the short window before the material lost the sheen he wanted to capture on film.

One of those images -- "Action Photo I, After Hans Namuth (Pictures of Chocolate Series)," from the iconic photograph of Jackson Pollock at work -- was the first that then-curator Bill Bodine purchased for the opening of the new building of the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina.

When a search firm approached Mr. Bodine to succeed Frick Art & Historical Center director Dick McIntosh, he learned of the center's project with Mr. Muniz. That commitment, Mr. Bodine said at Mr. Muniz's talk, "flew in the face of the image of the Frick" and confirmed his decision to pursue the position. Coming full circle, Mr. Muniz's talk last week was the first center event to follow Mr. Bodine's announcement of his intent to retire at the end of June.

Mr. Muniz praised The Frick for having the "courage to bring an artist here. They gave me the run of the place."

He knew what he wanted to do from his first visit to Clayton. He'd read several books about Frick before coming to Pittsburgh. "But they didn't talk about the little things -- the old, dirty 19th-century boots at the children's entry, the size of the sinks, the freshly baked bread, the checks about to be written by Henry Clay Frick.

"What holds the image of the world together? The world we cannot understand because it happens all of the time when we're not looking, where we're not looking. It just happens. We look at what we're told is important. Things must have happened at Clayton. Children must have blown bubbles, discovered a dead snake, cookies were baked, a doctor visited."

These are some of the subjects Mr. Muniz photographed to present a visual history constructed of recorded fact, educated guess and artist instinct. He enlisted the staff, dressed in period costume, photographed using vintage camera and lens and orthochromatic film for an aged appearance, often from the uncorrupted vantage point of a child. He re-photographed vintage photographs and mixed them with the new, blending centuries, questioning expectations and norms.

Ms. Hall has written an essay for the free gallery guide that is a just-right mixture of personal immersion in and artist strategy for the project. The re-hung exhibition is a genuinely new experience -- post-9/11, which re-cast melancholy and nostalgia, post-iPhones and image promiscuity, post-any remnant of naive acceptance of the veracity of photographic image.

Mr. Muniz also turned preconception on its head again when he entered Jardim Gramacho, one of the world's largest landfills outside Rio de Janeiro.

"I'd wanted to photograph garbage for a long time, something society doesn't want to look at, like death. Garbage is something between an object and matter." When a truck drove by at the landfill, it became "like jelly. You're mentally tired when you get out of there. The smell is unbearable."

Still he found incredible beauty, in the people who made a living from gleaning the trash for salable items, and in the subsequent portraits he made in collaboration with them using landfill material. When the project began, Mr. Muniz said, he "had no intention to connect social commentary with artmaking." But the stories of the catadores have touched the hearts of many, through sales of their portraits and boosted by the 2010 documentary.

The idea for the "Pictures of Garbage" came at a time when Mr. Muniz was questioning the value of his profession, and the response the project engendered was proof that what he is doing is worthwhile.

"Art humanizes people. Art makes people more sensitive to life itself," he concluded.

Ms. Benedict-Jones will speak on "Vik Muniz: Illusionist" at noon Oct. 24 at the Frick Art Museum (free), including anecdotes about the residency project and her impressions of the artist's career to date. Ms. Benedict-Jones was herself a photographer, teaches the history of photography at Carnegie Mellon University, and was executive director of Silver Eye Center for Photography for almost 10 years. The exhibition continues at 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze, through Oct. 27. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission and parking are free. Information: 412-371-0600 or www.TheFrickPittsburgh.org.

artarchitecture

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published October 15, 2013 8:00 PM


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