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Indepth Arts News:

2000-09-09 until 2000-10-22
Frick Art and Historical Center
Pittsburgh, PA, USA United States of America

The Frick Art & Historical Center, Pittsburgh, presents its first exhibition of contemporary art, with a major body of new work by internationally-acclaimed camera artist Vik Muniz. Comprising sixty-five photographs created in 2000, Clayton Days. Picture Stories by Vik Muniz inaugurates the Center’s artist-in-residence program, in which contemporary artists are invited to respond to the collections at the Center.

While at the Frick, Mr. Muniz became fascinated by the concepts, histories, and collections contained in and around Clayton, the restored nineteenth-century estate of industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick. The photographs in Clayton Days—elaborately staged still lifes and genre scenes—constitute Mr. Muniz’s carefully constructed, personal vision of how life might have been in the twenty-three rooms and on the grounds of the Victorian-era house.

According to DeCourcy E. McIntosh, executive director of the Frick, “It was a sense of the limitations of historical interpretation that led us to Mr. Muniz in the first place. After nearly ten years of impressing upon the public the accuracy of the Clayton restoration and the significance of the site, we craved a fresh perspective, one created not through analysis of historical evidence, but formed by the eye and hand of an artist.”

During his residency, Mr. Muniz became particularly interested in the many histories told about Clayton and the family that lived there. As one of the most compelling and controversial industrialists at the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Clay Frick has been the object of historical scrutiny and interpretation for 100 years. The story of his family’s life at Clayton, where the Fricks and their children lived from 1882 until 1905, when they moved to New York City, is retold daily by docents leading public tours through the home. “I’ve taken the tour of Clayton with different guides, and every one tells a unique story,” says Mr. Muniz. “Although they all have the same text, they emphasize different parts. Once history enters the realm of human interpretation…it is inadvertently analyzed and changed.”

Many of Clayton’s most compelling stories center around the Fricks’ family life and their children, Childs (1883–1965), Martha (1885–1891), Helen (1888–1984), and Henry Clay Frick, Jr. (July 1–August 3, 1892). It is the “incredible presence of children” that Mr. Muniz felt most vividly at Clayton. He decided that, in the absence of photographs documenting a child’s point of view in the nineteenth century, he would take on the task of exploring such a perspective, along with its psychological and visual complications.

To create his work for the Frick, Mr. Muniz used period equipment, including a nineteenth-century lens and camera. He shot the photographs from the low perspective of a four- or five-year-old child and used as his models contemporary children and adults, dressed in period clothing and posed in sometimes elaborately staged scenes recreating the artist’s vision of life at Clayton: for example, a festive croquet party, two girls helping each other dress, or a seated servant peeling potatoes. Even people who were involved in the shoots, but not actually in the pictures, dressed in costumes of the era.

The photographs have many qualities of straightforward Victorian pictorial prints, yet at the same time they are lyrical and haunting as they explore the innocence of children travelling through an adult world. In one example, a group of men and women, along with a young boy and girl, lean over a woman who has fainted. Another image conveys an acute sense of loneliness and mystery as a young boy in a cap and jacket peers out a window, looking intently at something not revealed in the photograph.

In some of the still lifes, objects are used to evoke human presence, as well as the activities of daily life. Several of these, like a photograph of a hand of solitaire that has been abandoned, are reminiscent of seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings in which the viewer appears to have come upon a scene just as the participants have left. In others, such as the picture of an open medicine chest containing almond meal, glycerin, and other preparations, the viewer could be peering over the shoulder of a Frick family member. Other photographs take on an ominous cast: A crow on a window ledge, the pull-cord of a shade dangling above its back, is menacing, due to the close range and the photograph’s low perspective.

For Clayton Days, Mr. Muniz’s work is displayed to tell his own version of the history of life at Clayton. Indeed, the pictures remind us that, with our twentieth-century point of view, we can never truly understand Clayton as it actually was. For all the apparent authenticity of these images, the viewer remains aware of the pictures’ artifice, and thus of the fact that photography can only express the personal vision of the photographer, and not “objective” reality. Mr. Muniz’s vision is complex and multi-layered, drawing viewers into the world he has created, and intriguing them with its mysteries.

In addition to Clayton Days, the Frick will present Mr. Muniz’s Flora Industrialis series, as well as Dying Rose and his Brooklyn, NY photographs. Flora Industrialis, consisting of twenty works, takes on the form of a botanical field guide. In reality, the pictures are not of actual flora, but of artificial flowers shot on black backgrounds.

Brooklyn, NY is a series of photographs based on re-creations of famous large-scale man-made structures, like Stonehenge and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Created in 1970, Mr. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is a spiral of dirt, rocks, and debris that extends 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake. Mr. Muniz’s facsimile of Spiral Jetty was created on a table top in his Brooklyn studio and deals with the notion of photographic scale.

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