New York

Vik Muniz, Buttons (L), Handmade, 2016–, mixed media, 73 3/8 × 49 1/2". From the series “Handmade,” 2016–.

Vik Muniz, Buttons (L), Handmade, 2016–, mixed media, 73 3/8 × 49 1/2". From the series “Handmade,” 2016–.

Vik Muniz

Vik Muniz, Buttons (L), Handmade, 2016–, mixed media, 73 3/8 × 49 1/2". From the series “Handmade,” 2016–.

It’s no great challenge to name recent exhibitions in New York that have drawn their power from expert illusionism. One featuring Vija Celmins’s obsessive conjurings of the night sky and ocean surface, for example, coincided with another presenting Matt Johnson’s painted carved-wood simulacra of packaging materials and studio detritus. Our appetite for near-exact copies of extant objects and images—from the sublime to the banal—appears as powerful as ever. Vik Muniz is an artist for whom precise representation has long been important as both strategy and theme, specifically as a way to interrogate the relationship of the photographic image to its referent. This exhibition, which marked the first American appearance of his series “Handmade,” 2016–, saw Muniz jettison his also-familiar usage of unexpected materials to focus more tightly than ever on this idea. He also directed it toward a commentary on the shifting status of art itself: “In a time when everything’s reproducible,” he has said, “the difference between the artwork and its image is all but nonexistent.”

The works in “Epistemes”—the show was named for Michel Foucault’s term épistème, which he used in The Order of Things (1966) to denote a structure that establishes the conditions for the production of scientific knowledge in a given time and place—are characteristically Munizian hybrids, near-seamless mergings of the photograph with elements of sculpture, assemblage, and collage. The first work in the show, Buttons (L), Handmade, 2016–, is typical: A large framed constellation of variously sized and colored buttons against a plain white ground, it appears initially to be a straightforward color print. A closer look, however, reveals that for every four of five images of buttons, one actual, physical button intervenes. This is easily missed, such is the work’s pin-sharp resolution, but once noticed cannot be unseen. It provides the technical key to the whole exhibition; each work juxtaposes the photographic and the actual in such a way that the viewer must perform real observational labor to disentangle them.

Conceptually, the strategy is so simple as to feel, once discovered, almost offensive; could this perceptual stunt, however well executed, really have been all that was going on in Buttons (L), Handmade, and in the numerous variations on the same idea that followed it? Were we intended to regard “Epistemes” as a substantive new project, or simply as a quasi-nostalgic exercise in high-production-value back-to-basics? Muniz’s stated point about the convergence of artwork and reproduction doesn’t feel quite sufficient, and the innocuous styling of the constructions themselves didn’t help matters. Entries from the large-scale Tears (1XL), Handmade to the smaller Bound, Handmade (both 2016) traded in a kind of nonaligned abstraction that seems to exist purely to facilitate the series rather than as part of something more ambitious. Further, there’s a kind of jaunty good humor to their clean, bright aesthetic that started to rub the wrong way after eight or ten examples.

“Interaction of Color,” a subseries excerpted at length in the rear gallery, layers an homage to Josef Albers’s foundational text on color theory over the tactile-versus-pictorial oppositions of “Handmade,” but the end result is still fatally pretty. Muniz is an artist of enormous intelligence and wit, but this gamble with a backward step that, though it may have functioned as a useful refresher for Muniz himself, disregarded its audience’s demand for meditations that are subtler and more complex, not just more numerous. As with Photorealism, there comes a point when perfection isn’t enough.

Michael Wilson