Exhibition News

Ron Mueck @ the McClelland Gallery (August 2008)

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Published Monday, July 28, 2008

Is it a bird, is it a plane - well no, it's a mirror.

It is said that when Giotto (1267 – 1337) was only a boy, he once painted a fly on the nose of a face that Cimabue had drawn, so naturally that the master returning to his work tried more than once to drive it away with his hand, thinking it was real. (Vasari's Lives of the Artists)

An artist's technical virtuosity has always been judged by their ability to trick the eye and none do this better than those artists we label hyper-realists. Strangely, while 20th century artists worked so hard to challenge audience’s credulity and tolerance, it is the hyper-realists, with their high fidelity reproductions of our natural world, that are drawing the crowds – and none more so than Ron Mueck.

Mueck's life and accomplishments are well documented so I'll just briefly recap here– he went to Kew High school with The Age art critic Robert Nelson, failed to make it into art school, and made a living preparing custom made-to-order hyper-real props. Finally, he came to the attention of Charles Saatchi in the UK. Mueck had some pieces in Paula Rego's (his mother-in-law) studio in 1996 when Saatchi happened to pop in. Shortly after, Saatchi began acquiring his work.

Mueck’s international reputation kicked off with the massive attention he received in the 1997 exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy with his half life size sculpture Dead Dad, portaying his late father’s body.

Hyper-realists react against the broader post-modernist themes where artists chose to present work that was less like holding a mirror up to the world and more like challenging the viewer to accept that whatever an artist presents, is in fact, art. Hyper-realists love to hold a mirror up to the world and present cars, trucks, figures or monsters. With Ron Mueck, the mirror he holds up reflects our own image - and we stare at our reflection and marvel at it's strangeness!

The mirror may, like those in Giggle Palaces enlarge, shrink or distort the source, but that is well within our experience. Hyper-realism is a reactionary movement in the context of the current art movements although it does share a superficial likeness with pop art. But, unlike pop art that sought to render the concept of creative genius secondary to media genius, hyper-realism firmly places the artist on a pedestal. It is the artist's challenge to match nature that we somehow long to see and have done so since Vasari celebrated Giotto's prank 600 years ago.

The photorealist paintings of the 1960’s and 70’s drew visitors in significant numbers, to marvel at the technical facility of the artist that could so skilfully produce lifelike facsimiles of with art works that didn’t make fun of the audience. Australian audiences can still see photorealist works by Chuck Close, by visiting the NGA, as they have in their collection one of his paintings titled Bob or visiting the NGV to see Audrey Flack’s painting Parrots live forever).

Australia has delivered a clutch of contemporary artists currently working in the hyper-real domain – artists like James Angus, Sam Jinks, Patricia Piccinini, Ricky Swallow come to mind and, of course, the subject of this exhibition, Ron Mueck. When a museum gives the public the type of art that they want they are rewarded with awesome attendance figures (see further reading list).

In 2006, the McClelland Gallery hosted Random Access where the works of Jinks and Angus were exhibited as part of a sculpture survey. However, it was the work by Mueck that the McClelland selected for purchase, not those by Jinks or Angus.

There are close formal links between Jinks and Mueck and perhaps this might be the theme of a future exhibition. That hypothetical exhibition should also include the work of Piccinini, another artist worthy of inclusion because her links with Sam Jinks are more concrete, as he collaborated with her from 2001-2006.

Mueck's incredibly detailed works draws our stare – we gaze for as long as we care over the hair, skin, folds, and general shape of his figures. Don't stare at the stranger is no longer a moderating phrase – we can just gawk at their likeness - and yet we can sniff their otherness.

Mueck's technical accomplishments in making silicone and fibreglass appear as flesh and bone, with all the tonal nuances, skin blemishes and hair is spellbinding. Museums around the world have drawn large numbers through the gates by exhibiting Mueck.

Mueck follows these basic steps when creating his sculptures:

  • First, he creates small clay maquettes to determine the figure’s posture and position.
  • Then makes drawings of the figure at different sizes to determine the size of the sculpture.
  • Now he is ready to create a detailed clay model of the figure – this includes the skin texture.
  • Then he moulds the final sculpture of clay in silicone/fibreglass.
  • Finally, he applies the hair and paints the skin.

One of the most important decisions is the scale of the work - Mueck varies this – producing scaled works that are either gigantic or model size rather than actual size. But there are other critical decisions to be made around how the subject is presented to us.

In this exhibition of Ron Mueck at the McClelland there are three works on display - Wild Man from the McClelland’s collection, Two Women from the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection and Pregnant Woman from the National Gallery of Australia's collection.

Pregnant Woman from the NGA’s collection is well documented on the NGA's web site – in particular, if you are interested in the technical aspects of the construction go to the conservation report at [http://www.nga.gov.au/Mueck/conservation.cfm]. Pregnant Woman is a complex work – the sinusoidal pose has faint resonance with classical depictions of the perfect female form and force. However, here the strain of creation shows and the once perfect form, while still eye catching, is worn out right at this moment.

Ron Mueck’s Pregnant Woman

The National Gallery of Victoria's Two Women is also featured in this exhibition. Bloggers love this work whenever it is displayed – perhaps it is because it portrays all that is drab and ordinary with ageing and provides a moral springboard for audiences.

Ron Mueck’s Pregnant Woman

In The Wild Man a giant clutches at his seat. In his nakedness, unarmed he shies away from our gaze. This is a real circus strongman, caught naked and unable to defend himself from our presence and our gaze. His eyes wide open fend us off and there is an expression of "whoa – what are you doing here?"

Ron Mueck’s Wild Man

And, these artists are all relatively young – where do they go to next?

Is it just a question of time before these polite and gentle giants and dwarves take to more radical shock tactics once the shock of their presence has passed? Their realism is yet to be exploited for shock. For, while we respond with some surprise and awe when first coming upon them, it surely won't be long until artists seek a more shocking presence. And then, perhaps, we might see the difference between art and model making.


Listen to Robert Lindsay deliver a Public Program Art Chat Thursday 28 August Curator’s Floor Talk Robert Lindsay, Director McClelland. Morning Coffee 11am Members $10 Non-Members $15.

More information about Ron Mueck and the hyper realists can be found by going to the web, but start with these links:

  • Biographical - [http://www.sculpture.org/documents/scmag03/jul_aug03/mueck/mueck.shtml]
  • Commentary on the significance of Mueck [http://forums.canadiancontent.net/movies-music-books/49089-ron-mueck-bigger-than-monet.html]
  • Review of Sam Jinks at WestSpace [http://gallery.discoverymedia.com.au/artzinePub/story.asp?id=371§ion=ExNews]
  • Chuck Close’s painting Bob (http://www.nga.gov.au/International/Catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=37305&SiteID=1)
  • Vasari's Lives of the Artists (online @ http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/vasari/vasari1.htm)
  • Chuck Close's painting Bob at the NGA, http://www.nga.gov.au/International/Catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=37305&SiteID=1
  • Audrey Flack's Parrots Live Forever, http://www.audreyflack.com/AF/index.php?name=dyetransferphotos&directory=.¤tPic=16
  • Review of Random Access at the McClelland Gallery, http://gallery.discoverymedia.com.au/artzinePub/story.asp?id=330§ion=ExNews

By Martin Shub, July 2008. This story had a much needed edit in January 2011.

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