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> Cover Story
April 20, 2006
   
 

For the Sake of Art...

Big Man

by lyle e davis

I

t is called hyper-realistic sculpture . . . and it is almost the sole province of one magnificent artist, Ron Mueck.

His figurative sculptures, which are usually cast in silicon and acrylic, are celebrated for their incredible lifelike detail, although his manipulation of their scale means that they often evoke reality rather than directly imitating it.

The large sculpture above, Big Man, is 7’ tall. Note the fine detail of the skin, the veins, the eyes, down to the finest detail of the toes, even the toenails. One almost expects the sculpture to come alive, arise, and begin walking through the museum.

Close examination of the sculpture on Page 5, Mask II, created in 2000, reveals even greater details. "Peek inside and you can see teeth, gums and even a little faux saliva," writes one art critic of "Mask II." "Stand beside it for a moment, and you'll swear you can hear him snore."

Who is this marvelous artist who makes sculpture almost come to life? And how does he do what he does?

Mask II

Mask, 1997, by Ron Mueck
polyester resin and mixed
media 62.2 x 60.2 x 48.8 in

Ron Mueck is a London-based photo-realist artist who was born in Melbourne, Australia, to parents who were toy makers. He worked on children's television shows for 15 years before working in special effects for such films as "Labyrinth," a 1986 fantasy epic starring David Bowie.

Mueck then started his own company in London, making models to be photographed for advertisements. He has lots of the dolls he made during his advertising years stored in his home. Although some still have, he feels, "a presence on their own," many were made just to be photographed from a particular angle- "one strip of a face," for example, with a lot of loose material lurking an inch outside the camera's frame.

Eventually Mueck concluded that photography pretty much destroys the physical "presence" of the original object, and so he turned to fine art and sculpture.

Moving to the United Kingdom from Australia in the early 1980s, Mueck's first venture into the art world was in 1996, with the creation of a figure of Pinocchio for his mother-in-law, the renowned British painter Paula Rego. The piece was exhibited alongside her paintings in the major exhibition, Spellbound, at the Hayward Gallery, London.

She had commissoned Mueck to make something highly realistic, and was wondering what material would do the trick. Latex was the usual, but he wanted something harder, more precise. Luckily, he saw a little architectural decor on the wall of a boutique and inquired as to the nice, pink stuff's nature. Fiberglass resin was the answer, and Mueck has made it his bronze and marble ever since.

The interest generated by this work led to Mueck's inclusion in the controversial 1997 exhibition, Sensation, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art where he presented Dead Dad - a small-scale, hyper-real sculpture of the artist's father created from memory. Dead Dad is a rather haunting silicone and mixed media sculpture of the corpse of Mueck's father reduced to about two thirds of its natural scale. It is the only work of Mueck's that uses his own hair for the finished product!

In the years since his participation in Sensation: Works from the Saatchi Collection, Mueck has posted shows at major galleries in New York, Germany, not to mention selection for the

London Millenium Dome and “his work was also the subject of a solo exhibition at London’s highest profile contemporary art
space, Anthony d'Offay gallery.

Mueck continued to receive both public and critical acclaim for his 4.5 metre crouching Boy which filled the cavernous space of London's Millenium Dome (2000) and later featured as the centrepiece at the Venice Biennale in 2001. He also had a solo exhibition at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

Mueck's sculptures faithfully reproduce the minute detail of the human body, but play with scale to produce disconcertingly jarring visual images. His five metre high sculpture Boy 1999 was a feature in the Millennium Dome and later exhibited in the Venice Biennale.

Boy

“Boy,” Mueck’s 30-foot-tall, incredibly life-like
sculpture of a young boy with eyes of cautious
innocence, crouching in the enormous atrium, could
be the David of the new Millennium.

In 2000 he created and displayed Untitled (Big Man.) His works are typically made by creating clay models/forms that are then cast in silicone or polyester. The artist often shrinks or inflates the scale of his shockingly real figures of babies, children, and men; here the seated figure is nearly seven feet high. For Big Man, Mueck used an airbrush to apply the final smooth layer of paint, which convincingly resembles human flesh.

In addition to being an exploration of anatomy and illusionism, Untitled (Big Man) is a study in color; blue eyes and veins contrast with the yellow undertones of hairless pink skin. Mueck's sculpture, unlike the classical nudes of Ancient Greece and the European Renaissance which celebrate human beauty and proportions, presents the viewer with a monumental yet unidealized version of the human body that emphasizes its physical presence, fleshiness, and weight.

In the years since his participation in Sensation: Works from the Saatchi Collection, Mueck has posted shows at major galleries in New York, Germany, not to mention selection for the London Millenium Dome and “his work was also the subject of a solo exhibition at London’s highest profile contemporary art
space, Anthony d'Offay gallery.

Mueck continued to receive both public and critical acclaim for his 4.5 metre crouching Boy which filled the cavernous space of London's Millenium Dome (2000) and later featured as the centrepiece at the Venice Biennale in 2001. He also had a solo exhibition at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.

Mueck's sculptures faithfully reproduce the minute detail of the human body, but play with scale to produce disconcertingly jarring visual images. His five metre high sculpture Boy 1999 was a feature in the Millennium Dome and later exhibited in the Venice Biennale.

Wild Man
Wild Man, 2005. On display in Paris

In 2000 he created and displayed Untitled (Big Man.) His works are typically made by creating clay models/forms that are then cast in silicone or polyester. The artist often shrinks or inflates the scale of his shockingly real figures of babies, children, and men; here the seated figure is nearly seven feet high. For Big Man, Mueck used an airbrush to apply the final smooth layer of paint, which convincingly resembles human flesh.

In addition to being an exploration of anatomy and illusionism, Untitled (Big Man) is a study in color; blue eyes and veins contrast with the yellow undertones of hairless pink skin. Mueck's sculpture, unlike the classical nudes of Ancient Greece and the European Renaissance which celebrate human beauty and proportions, presents the viewer with a monumental yet unidealized version of the human body that emphasizes its physical presence, fleshiness, and weight.

Mueck's process and techniques are a source of fascination, particularly in relation to his meticulous observation of the skin's surface: its pores, the follicles of hair, the softness of a mole, the hardness of a nail and the shadows of veins just beneath the skin. These are the things that draw viewers to Pregnant woman and make the sculpture seem so real. In 2002 his sculpture Pregnant Woman was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia for $800,000 (Australian Dollars), $586,259.45 in US Dollars (as of 4/11/06, when this article was written).

In Escondido, another world reknown artist is part of our community. Nicki St. Phalle has a number of her sculptures placed in and around Escondido. Until she died recently, she was actively involved in working with the Cultural Arts Center, Escondio. Her work is prominently displayed throughout the city.

In Bed
Visitors look at In Bed (2005) by Australian-
born sculptor Ron Mueck, during an exhibition at
the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary
Art in Paris. Photo: AFP

What about Mueck? Are we likely to have an artist of his prominence also join the Escondido wealth of art? Even for a temporary showing?

Not likely says Mary-Catherine Ferguson, Museum Director, California Center for the Arts, Escondido. “Depending on the location of his works, there is usually a substantial fee for the shipping. As you know, we are a non-profit museum and so do not sell artwork. Currently our budgets are trim and do not allow for out of state shipping costs.”

From a time standpoint, CCAE is booked solid through 2008. That would not be a major obstacle as Mueck is also booked solid at major galleries throughout the world, London, Berlin, New York. It would take time to get him . . . and patience, and money.

Unfortunately, says Mary-Catherine, there are other issues. Mueck is a brilliant artist . . . but many of his works feature nudes (as is the case with the subject of our cover). “The nudity would be a "no-go" at the CCAE Museum. It seems we've had some issues with this in the past as they relate to education and young school groups.”

This policy came as somewhat of a surprise to us. Typically, museums, particularly art museums, are open to exploration of the totality of art, including the human body. Under this policy Michaelangelo’s “David” would not be able to be displayed at CCAE.

Indeed, when we decided to feature Mr. Mueck as our cover story we knew ahead of time that we would draw flak because we opted to display nudity. We will accept that flak. It is our opinion that this is, indeed, fine art, and needs to be displayed to those interested in art as well as to those who are only just becoming aware of art and its many forms.

Escondido has created quite a reputation recently for serving as a home to a variety of outstanding art galleries. Several of these galleries display very expensive works of art from time to time. Whether or not the commercial market of art galleries would be willing or able to financially arrange for a showing of Mueck’s work, we don’t know. We spoke with a number of other art galleries within the Escondido art community to get their reaction to having such a prominent, world wide artist displaying his works.

Boy
Another view of “Boy.”

Bob Wright of the Robert Wright Gallery in Escondido said, “I wouldn’t display his work. Escondido and North San Diego County just isn’t ready for art work that involves any degree of nudity.

We sell fine art and often fine art that is priced on the high end but even those art pieces are seldom bought by locals. They are often patrons from New Mexico, Arizona, areas of LA or back east.

We had a well known painter, Robert Ferguson, who specialized in Plein Air Painting. He decided he wanted to do figures and to do figures you need to understand the human anatomy.

The painting of nudes helps the artist get that anatomical understanding. He painted several nudes, at least one of which was an excellent painting. He arranged to display it at Distinction Gallery here on Grand Avenue in Escondido and it created a bit of a controversy. No . . . Escondido simply isn’t ready for nudes in its art presentation.”

Susan McLaughlin, owner of the Lillian Berkley Collection, agrees with Bob Wright, however, she says, “his work would be great to show in Escondido. It would certainly generate a great deal of publicity . . . probably comparable to Nikki St. Phalle. His work, however, would fit in better with a museum type of environment because of the size of his pieces, often 7” or more high. There simply wouldn’t be room in my gallery for such large sculptures. Plus, we represent 20 different artists in our gallery, each of whom has his or her own area. We just wouldn’t have the available space.

I do regret the museum’s stance on nudity. We often carry cutting edge artists, sometimes surreal in their work . . . and we do very well with them. But an artist of the scale and caliber of Ron Mueck, well, I agree with Bob Wright, the locals would not likely invest in this size and cost of art.

Mask II
Mask II, 2001

I recognize the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, has a problem with displaying art that deals with nudity. Some of their primary donors are quite conservative and if they are offended, well, there goes some important funding support. Still, the very foundation of art since time began has been the human form. But, politically, I understand the difficult position they are in.”

So, for the moment at least, it appears that the work of Ron Mueck will have to remain here, on the pages of The Paper.

We fully expect to draw flak for having run these photos of his art work. And we shall accept that flak, knowing that this is the work of a magnificent artist . . . as was the work of Michaelangelo.

For now, enjoy.