A hyper realist

A hyper realist

Different strokes

A hyper realist

Way back in 1997, the Royal Academy of Art in London hosted an exhibition titled ‘Sensation’ to “celebrate the achievements of a generation of young British artists whose original and challenging work has received international acclaim”.

Around 110 works of 42 young artists loaned from the extensive collection of advertising magnate Charles Saatchi were displayed at the three-month-long event (beginning September 1997) and witnessed by a record-breaking attendance of three lakh people.

The ‘Sensation’ exhibit also generated unprecedented controversy. A section of the press and general public felt outraged by the quality and content of the exhibits; the BBC described it as a show of “gory images of dismembered limbs and explicit pornography”.

The Royal Academy’s chief of exhibitions Norman Rosenthal, however, justified the exhibits. “All art is moral,” he declared quite sensationally. “Anything that is immoral is not art.” In a provocatively titled catalogue essay The Blood Must Continue to Flow, he went on to claim that it had always been the job of artists to conquer territory that had been taboo. “Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos.” 

Personal touch

Contentious works at the ‘Sensation’ included Damien Hirst’s A Thousand Years, with a decaying cow’s head in glass vitrine; Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (a black Madonna made of paint, glitter, and material cut from pornographic magazines and smeared with elephant dung); Mark Quinn’s self-portrait sculpture made with eight pints of his own blood; Chapman Brother’s deformed plastic mannequins of children with displaced sexual organs; and Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Slept With 1963-1995, which presented a tent as an eroticised space. The work that caused utmost uproar and hysteria was Marcus Harvey’s 11-feet-high rendition of a police photograph of Myra Hindley, the female child sex serial killer who had abused and slaughtered five innocent children. 

Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad (1996) was another work that drew considerable attention. The hyper-realistic mixed-media sculpture showed his unclothed, deceased father. The controversial yet memorable work presented the figure not as an idealised body but as odd, awkward and deeply mortal flesh. The shrunken body also provoked empathy, tenderness and curiosity. “I didn’t really get on with my father,” admitted Mueck. “But, as I made the piece, I found myself thinking about him, caring.”

Writing in The Telegraph, Mark Hudson observed: “What made the piece particularly disconcerting was the fact that it was, at 3-ft, roughly half life-size; the sense of looking at an old man’s body on the scale of a small child’s inducing mixed feelings of vulnerability, compassion and a kind of shamed revulsion.” 

Interestingly, in the same year, Mueck created another sculpture — that of a bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked boy titled Big Baby (1996, mixed media, 67 x 61 x 60 cm). Dramatically enlarged both in scale and detail, every inch of the baby’s gigantic limbs and features filled the onlooker with wonderment and desire. Incidentally, Big Baby sold for £825,250 ($1,317,099) at a London Christie’s auction in June 2011.

Model maker

Born in Australia to German parents in 1958, Mueck left his country after school, moving to the west coast of the US and then to London. He worked in both places for the film and special effects industry. In 1996, he was working in his mother-in-law’s studio as a model maker for a Pinocchio story, when he attracted the attention of Saatchi who bought a sculpture of the funny cartoon character for £3,000 ($4,650). Dead Dad, which was unveiled in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition was Saatchi’s next acquisition; he also bought two large-scale sculptures of babies created by Mueck. 

Over the years, the erstwhile model maker and puppeteer, who made exceptional sculptures with lifelike expressions and body language, began attracting international attention. Critics were struck by the obsessive surface detail and intense psychic discharge of his intriguing figures, which were remarkably convincing yet deeply disturbing. 

“Mueck is a master at orchestrating tensions that both attract and estrange,” explains writer and curator Sarah Tanguy. “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 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.”

According to Brian Kennedy, director, National Gallery of Australia, Mueck takes his place in the tradition of those who have tried to make objects which are real; at the same, his work is always out of scale from reality. “His figures are either oversized or undersized. They strive for super-realism, but there is a psychological confrontation between these two contradictory realities, the effort to deceive by perfection, and the obvious discrepancy of scale.” 

On his part, Mueck says he has not made life-size figures “because it never seemed to be interesting; and we meet life-size people every day.” He also prefers to use photographs or references from books instead of working with live models. As for the self-portraits, he chooses to look himself in the mirror. “If you look in a mirror, you see all the imperfections and asymmetrical things that you just can’t see otherwise because you’ve been looking at it too long.”

He explains that in his work he tries to create a believable presence; but also wants his sculptures to work as objects. “They aren’t living persons, although it’s nice to stand in front of them and be unsure whether they are or not. But ultimately, they’re fiberglass objects that you can pick up and carry. If they succeed as fun things to have in the room, I’m happy. At the same time, I wouldn’t be satisfied if they didn’t have some kind of presence that made you think they’re more than just objects.”

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