They’re images you’ve seen a hundred times. Che Guevara with his beret tilted to one side. The Mona Lisa smiling secretively. Elizabeth Taylor’s smoldering gaze. Medusa howling. Frankenstein’s monster with a screw through his neck.

And yet, as you peer closer, the form disappears and you notice the material: beans, chocolate, toy soldiers, computer parts, caviar, diamonds.  This – the moment in which the material melds into the picture – is, according to Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, the moment in which the magic happens.  Image intersects with medium and the figure takes on a new life, blending the viewer’s visual perceptions with all of the associations a substance evokes. Caviar oozing over a white background in the shape of Dracula.  Two Mona Lisas side by side in peanut butter and jelly. A chocolate Jackson Pollock splattering chocolate paint onto his canvas.

Not all of Muniz’s works in the Banco de la República exhibit are playful, however.  Some, like the portraits of garbage pickers from Jardim Gramacho, a massive garbage heap outside of Rio de Janeiro, are politically charged.

When Muniz first arrived at Jardim Gramacho—at the time the largest landfill in the world – he expected to find broken people.  Drug addicts, criminals, all those who had been pushed to the edge of society.  Instead, he found strong men and women who combed tirelessly through other people’s waste, recycling plastic containers, scrap metal, anything and everything that could be reused and sold to support their families.

Inspired by their pride and dignity, Muniz began to photograph the recyclers posing as the subjects of famous works of art.  The 19-year-old mother of two and girlfriend of a drug dealer became the Virgin Mary.  A lonely woman who had lost her three-year-old son posed as Picasso’s “Woman Ironing.”  The leader of the picker’s union lay prostrate in a bathtub acting out “The Death of Marat.”  Muniz enlarged these photographs and hired the pickers to trace the images with garbage and recycled materials they collected from the landfill.  Then he photographed the finished product from above.

The result is a stunning portrait of human dignity.  The men and women of Jardim Gramacho appear elegant, even regal.  It’s only as the viewer steps closer that he sees the bottle caps, amputated dolls, worn-out shoes and cardboard boxes.

In a way, Muniz is also a recycler.  For one series, entitled “The Best of Life,” Muniz drew iconic photographs published in Life magazine from memory.  He then photographed his drawings and printed them using the same type of printer Life employed in the 1960s.  Since the viewer’s memory is as imperfect as Muniz’s, the photographs appear to have been taken directly from the magazine. The viewer’s desire to confirm the authenticity of the images overrides any discrepancies.  Indeed, the first time these photographs were displayed museumgoers assumed they were prints of the original photographs.

In all of his works at the “Más acá de la imagen” exhibit, Muniz toys with our desire to categorize and name images and above all to determine whether or not they are “real.”  As the text accompanying the exhibit explains, “More than what we believe, the only real thing is this event, the wanting to believe.  For Muniz, Houdini was a realist.”

Muniz credits his childhood dyslexia for his artistic abilities and claims that his difficulty learning to read and write enabled him to develop what he refers to as “pre-linguistic abilities” and forge a deeper connection with the world of the senses.

Perhaps this explains, in part, the tactile element of Muniz’s work.  Although he photographs his pieces, since most are perishable or at least difficult to transport, Muniz succeeds in capturing the smell, taste, and feeling of the material.  Paintings drawn with melted chocolate, for example, fuse the image with all of the sensations and feelings chocolate inspires.  As Muñiz writes, chocolate “reminds us of love, luxury, romance, obesity, scatology, stains, guilt, etc.; associations that undoubtedly short-circuit the significance of the original image.”

This is the essence of the Vik Muniz retrospective:  iconic images and famous works of art rendered in unusual substances that nudge you – sometimes playfully, sometimes forcefully – to reexamine, reinterpret and reimagine what you’ve already seen.

“Más acá de la imagen”

Museo de Arte del Banco de la República. Calle 11 No.4-41