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Ken Jacobs
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This is Modern Art

See Ya On The Flip Side :
Vic Muniz's Verso

Vik Muniz: Verso (Starry Night), 2008, mixed media object, 29 x 36.25 x 12 inches

The term "avant-garde" has its origins in military use, signifying the front lines of an army advancing into battle. Verso, an exhibition by Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz is "avant-garde", but there is no front here -- only the back.

Verso, at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in New York City through October 11, 2008, presents replicas of the back side of nine famous paintings. Leaning against the wall, the nine paintings, of various sizes, appear first as austere surfaces. On closer approach, the apparent age of the pieces compels; these surfaces appear worn by hundreds of years of handling. Then it's the elaborate details that draw us in: a ragged surface, sitting as a frame within a frame, bears eight labels of different ages, each identifying it as Van Gogh's Starry Night. We notice how the logo for the Museum of Modern Art changed over the decades. Nearby are Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Matisse's The Red Studio, face to the wall.

In a way, these works are a celebration of the forger's craft. The skillfulness of these reproductions is extraordinary. Every label is perfectly aged, every scuff is thoroughly convincing. Two hundred rubber stamps were produced to duplicate the original stamped markings. Muniz could not really have asked his craftsmen to reproduce the fronts of these paintings (well, if he did, he could hardly expect to sell them legally). By reproducing only the backs, the forgers are free to do what they do best, while staying out of jail.

The project manifests itself as a set of aesthetically compelling, conceptually powerful, eminently purchaseable commodities. There is something subtle and clever going on here. One can imagine the delight of an aspiring collector, who is now able to own half of Van Gogh's Starry Night -- even if it is only the back half. (Left casually leaning against the wall of a mansion, a guest might be led to believe that not only has her host purchased a masterpiece, but is simply too jaded to bother to flip it around and hang it.)

These forgeries are so skillful that one is thoroughly convinced: here we are, in the presence of a masterpiece. It's a natural impulse to peek around to the front: it's blank cardboard. Yet, the illusion is perfect. Time seems to have worked these pieces over. The museum labels have an authority that resonates, even as we know they are fake. Starry-Night-ness seems to reside in the object.

Part of the fascination of these works is how much they reveal about the institution of the museum. By flipping these masterpieces around, Muniz allows us an intimate glimpse of the original work that we can never get as a museum-goer. Who knew that so much information was residing on the back of these paintings? The backs, with their framing and re-framing, multiple labels, and catalog markings, reveal the history of the musuem's treatment of its possessions. There are opportunities for art-history scholarship here, as well as entertaining facts for more casual observers. Hans Haacke and the Guerrilla Girls have made art about art institutions, but Verso would seem to be likely to offer museums a particular narcissistic thrill. How wonderful if Muniz's back of Starry Night could be sold to MoMA, who owns the front!

These are highly conceptual works: there is no expressive intent and no visible trace of the hand of the artist (indeed, there was no direct involvement of the artist in the production of these works, apart from selecting which paintings to reproduce and which craftsman to hire to do the reproduction). However, unlike most conceptual art pieces, Muniz's back sides are hugely successful as aesthetic objects. A viewer ignorant of the concept would still admire the works for their austere presence, compelling scale, and magnificent craftsmanship. This marriage of high concept with rich aesthetic delight is a rare accomplishment, and is one of the qualities that makes this show so interesting. Verso seems to suggest that there is continued relevance for craft and virtuosity, even as concept remains king.

Conceptualism was born in the same era as Minimalism, and generally they have shared a tendency to austerity. Both have shunned craft, virtuosity, and easy aesthetic pleasure. Both exist comfortably with poverty, metaphorically as well as literally: poor artists can make successful Conceptual works with limited resources. For example, creating a Laurence Wiener wall text requires only a wall, some black paint, and a bit of string.

It's a different world for many current art superstars. To produce a Jeff Koons or a Takashi Murakami piece requires massive financial backing, a team of craftsmen and technicians, and an efficiently-run organization. Verso has much in common with this type of art, in spite of the fact its raison d'etre is purely conceptual. It is expensive work, and it looks like it. For this reason, perhaps Muniz's Verso can be said to define a new genre: Blockbuster Conceptualism.

What exactly is going on in Verso? Is it a commando raid on the museum, to steal the aura of some masterpieces, for quick resale? A casual observation that the backs of these paintings are every bit as good as the fronts? A critique of the institutions that create and sustain the economic value bestowed upon the masterpiece? A smug art-world insider joke? A high-minded reminder that beauty lies in unexpected, hidden places?

How do we respond to being confronted with so many back sides? Assuming for a moment that there is indeed something cynical in this work, perhaps the entire concept is a container for a particular nasty-ass metaphor. The "presentation of the backside" is a universal signifier of mockery and insult. Kiss this? In the case of Muniz's Verso, the viewer's response is likely to be, "Why yes, of course, I've never seen such a well-crafted and fascinating backside!" But, as they say, sometimes a kiss is just a kiss...

(Kurt Ralske, September 2008)

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