Australian-born, London-based Ron Mueck is as enigmatic as his sculptures. From a distended baby, stuck to the wall crucifixion-style and bearing an unnervingly intelligent demeanor far beyond his age, to a smaller-than-life, sick old woman, who curls up in a fetal pose under a blanket, Mueck’s works command an uncanny ability to amaze with obsessive surface detail and intense psychic discharge. Engaging and wildly popular, they expose our need to validate our humanity, even as they thwart our attempts at full disclosure.
Mueck first gained international attention with Dead Man, a naked, half-scale impression of his father shown in “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” (1997) at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. With no formal art training, he perfected his skills in the commercial world of special effects, model-making, and animatronics. In 1996, he presciently created for his mother-in-law, well-known British painter Paula Rego, a figure of Pinocchio, the quintessential embodiment of truth and lies. Saatchi saw this sculpture, and smitten, began acquiring Mueck’s work.
Since then, he has been making silicon or fiberglass and acrylic sculptures cast from clay models. A solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, in 2002, featured the museum’s own Untitled (Big Man). More recently, exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sidney and at the National Gallery in London included work conceived during Mueck’s two-year residency as Associate Artist at the National Gallery. One of the sculptures, Pregnant Woman, an eight-foot-high Ur-mother with arms crossed overhead, feet squarely planted, and a downward glance, was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, for $461,300, the highest price paid at the time for art by a living Australian.To get bogged down in a debate over naturalism, realism, and illusionism when trying to sort out the hows and whys of Mueck’s oeuvre is to miss the point. More interesting is a discussion of his standing in the history of figuration. A certain freshness and sincerity of vision distinguish him from the blasé irony of many of his contemporaries who also explore strategies of realism. Above all, Mueck is a master at orchestrating tensions that both attract and estrange. His figures invite close-up inspection of blemishes, hairs, veins, and expression, taking you on a psycho-topographical journey. If you stare long and deeply enough, you experience a horrific beauty. Yet the very same verisimilitude creates a weird distance that is as equally penetrating of our current existential state.
In this interview, Mueck explains the genesis of Untitled (Big Man) and offers an explanation of his technique—a bold adaptation of traditional conventions in defiance of computer-assisted design. Part intuitive, part willed, his multi-staged process involves a series of experiments and discoveries. Far from a servile copyist of nature, he reveals the need of making selective adjustments to maximize the physical and emotional aura of his figures. In the end, Mueck’s success hinges on faith and control. Through mastery of his materials in a seamless, seemingly effortless way, he awakens our willingness to believe in images that our imagination keeps alive.