Just off Campo San Vio, at roughly the midpoint between the Gallerie dell’Accademia and The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, is The Palazzo Cini Gallery, one of Venice’s less-traveled repositories of art and artifacts. Located in the former house of Vittorio Cini, an industrialist born in Ferrara but devoted to Venice, The Palazzo Cini can’t help but play second fiddle to Cini’s accomplishments on San Giorgio Maggiore, an island across the bay from San Marco. Bequeathed to Cini in 1951 by the Venetian government with the proviso that he restore its war-torn environs, San Giorgio points to how capital can lead to good works—in particular, the reconstruction of the eponymous church designed by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The more modest Palazzo Cini isn’t bereft of treasures, however. Predicated on a suite of icons from Cini’s hometown, the museum boasts works by Sassetta, Cosme Tura, Piero della Francesca, Piero Di Cosimo, and Pontormo, as well as three small panels by Ludovico Mazzolino, an artist previously unknown to me whose diverting pictures bear further research. The star of the collection is Dosso Dossi’s Scena Allegorica (1515/16), a diamond-shaped canvas featuring—well, it’s hard to say. Two women fighting; a screaming, harried youth; an arbitrary still-life; and a grimacing face that disrupts the composition like a Jack-in-the-Box. Forget any meaning that accrues from its stated allegory; Dossi’s slapstick grotesquerie appeals on its own oddball terms.

Scena Allegorica—or, rather, a riff on it—is the centerpiece of “Afterglow: Pictures of Ruins,” an exhibition of collages and prints by Vik Muniz. “Afterglow” takes up the entirety of The Palazzo Cini’s top floor, and had its origins in conversations between the artist and Luca Massimo Barbero, the Director of the Institute of Art History at the Fondazione Georgio Cini. Muniz is an art-world eminence, a photographer for whom the lens isn’t an intuitive medium so much as a means to an end. Employing unorthodox and often perishable materials, Muniz cadges upon the image bank of history, lifting specific and often highly identifiable pictures; then he photographs them. There was the play on Hans Namuth’s photo of Jackson Pollock rendered in chocolate syrup; elsewhere, Muniz paid homage to Andy Warhol using peanut butter and jelly. Other materials employed include dust—collected from the vacuum cleaners of The Whitney, no less—and sugar, in which Muniz “painted” portraits of child laborers from St. Kitts tasked to harvest the crop. Muniz cites Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons as influences, along with Buster Keaton and Byzantine mosaics. How the latter two inspirations funnel their way into the work is best explained by Muniz. But Sherman and Koons are clear: immaculate contrivance as a marker of self is the metier. Favoring intellectual strategy over material exploration, Muniz creates art that is forever secondary to his own machinations.

The works in “Afterglow” exhibit considerable pictorial know-how. Muniz’s collages take as their inspiration paintings by Hubert Robert, Francesco Guardi, Cannaletto, Caspar David Friedrich, Giovanni Paolo Pannini, John Constable, and Dossi; a separate series is predicated on the architectural fantasies of Giovanni Batista Piranesi. Muniz’s images are elaborately piecemeal. Innumerable photos encompassing the history of painting, sculpture, and printmaking have been cut, cobbled, ripped, and reconfigured into pictures that iterate the color, composition, and light of the original sources. Attempting to untangle the references in a single piece, let alone the entire exhibition, would tax even the most obsessive art historian. Where to begin inventorying Muniz’s high culture variations on “Where’s Waldo?” I spied the winged skeleton from Jan Van Eyck’s Last Judgment; a portrait by Rembrandt of his wife, Saskia; uncountable cherubim; an “interlocked” composition by Josef Albers; a snippet of Matisse’s The Dessert: Harmony in Red; and on it goes. Pop culture is also in evidence: L.A.’s iconic Hollywood sign, a photo of a Darth Vader wind-up toy, a ticket that reads “Hop On Hop Off,” and the obligatory snippet of porn. The truest connection with Venice lies in Muniz’s gritty textures: perpetual wear-and-tear is a proud emblem of the city’s historical cognizance or, as the artist has it, “fragmented eternity.” The golden-toned ambiance of “Afterglow” would make an impression anywhere, but at The Palazzo Cini it feels like home.

Muniz’s attention to both the small and large scale concerns of image making—that is to say, between ragtag snippets of paper and cinematic compositions—is, I guess, what links the work to mosaics. But the correlation is incomplete, inappropriate, and, in aesthetic terms, nugatory. Remember: Muniz makes collages but presents photographs. Interest that could be taken in how this-or-that Old Master has been re-imagined is quelled by the ersatz nature of Muniz’s vision. At the risk of over-stating the obvious: a photo of a collage is not a collage. It’s something else and, in Muniz’s case, something less. Like most artists influenced by Conceptualism, Muniz is something of a prude. The idea of materiality is more important than its reality. Hands-on sensuality is suspect; pleasure can only be acknowledged by denying it. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Muniz stated that he didn’t “believe in originality as much as . . . individuality,” citing the “aura of originality” as a “mere excuse for copying.” This is standard-brand Post-Modernist fiddle-faddle—high falutin’ talk meant to imbue expert fripperies with the imprimatur of Art. Granted, such an imprimatur plays well in the marketplace—an arena in which reproducible items, pumped up to monumental scale, can make for impressive financial returns. But perhaps I’m being cynical. Didn’t Romare Bearden attempt something similar in the 1960s with his “projections,” enlarged photos of miniaturist collages? Of course, Bearden ultimately abandoned the “projections,” finding the cut-and-paste aesthetic of collage more suitable to his full-bodied brand of humanism. Muniz? He’s into auras. Good luck gleaning anything full or humane from the calculated detachment of “Afterglow.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the July 7, 2017 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.