- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

Ron Mueck is the hot new realist sculptor with the international reputation, especially in London where he lives. Along with other young British artists such as Damien Hirst (whose dead animals in formaldehyde shocked Americans in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Sensation" exhibit not long ago) and Rachel Whiteread, who casts everyday objects like furniture, the Australian-born sculptor is obsessed with a contradictory realism.
His "Untitled (Big Man)" (2000) has been wowing audiences at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden since the Hirshhorn bought it last year. The over-two-times-lifesized, hairless, glowering figure with rolls of fatty, blotchy skin typifies Mr. Mueck's combination of what appears as the super-real with what couldn't possibly exist. The museum has not only purchased "Big Man," it is currently honoring the artist with a "Directions" exhibition. It is his first museum solo show and presents a grand opportunity to see the paradoxical nature of his work.
"Big Man," one of the artist's major efforts, is the centerpiece of "Directions Ron Mueck," one of the museum's most intriguing shows ever. Critic Peter Plagens wrote emphatically on Newsweek's Web site, "Ron Mueck has redefined realism [by getting] verisimilitude, variation of scale and some kind of psychological insight into realistic sculpture." "Big Man" amply demonstrates why. Audiences may not entirely agree with Mr. Plagens, but it is well worth examining the sculptures individually, as well as Mr. Mueck's approach.
Exhibit curator Sidney Lawrence has placed four recent sculptures by the artist in the cavernous space reserved for up-and-coming artists showcased in the "Directions" series. At first, even though the figures look "realistically" crafted, the display seems unreal. With these images, Mr. Mueck could be taking us through the different stages of life. The curator views the sculptures as mirrors of ourselves especially our vulnerable selves.
Representing the mature phase of life, "Big Man" crouches in the corner to the left. Across the room, "Mask II" (2001), a colossal self-portrait, shows only a sleeping head lying on its side. Mr. Lawrence has mounted what he calls "the beginning of life," the tiny "Baby" (2000) slightly above eye level on the back wall, to the right of the gallery divider. In the far -right section of the gallery lies the artist's comment on old age and death, the medium-sized "Untitled (Old Woman in Bed)" (2000).
Using scale, and even empty space, for psychological effect is nothing new. Bernini's enormous angels in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the altarpieces of the Northern Renaissance in Belgium and Chuck Close's super-sized portraits come to mind. Artists of our own time, mainly painters, have used scale and distortion to evoke intense emotion. Painters such as Mr. Close, Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein and Philip Guston have been the most successful. Super-realist sculptors like George Segal, John de Andrea and Duane Hanson used casts made from life, which, despite the accuracy of the figures' anatomy, show an unsettling alienation. Here in Washington, Rick Hart and Raymond Kaskey have tried to breathe new life in more humane ways into the realist mode.
Mr. Mueck (pronounced "Mew-ick"), 44, used a male model at London's National Gallery, where he is artist-in-residence, for "Big Man's" outlandish portrait. It is not only the size that astonishes. The model had shaved himself so that he had no body hair. Despite his bigness, he is asexual, with smooth skin like a baby's. He has tense, over-sized hammer-toed feet and distended purple veins.
"Big Man" seems angry as he looks out but why? He may feel incapable of action or protecting himself despite his size. He should be at the height of his powers, but instead seems impotent in every way.
To produce the extraordinary "aliveness" of his models, the artist builds an armature in metal and chicken-wire and might also make a drawing or take a Polaroid for later reference. He models the figure in clay, sometimes over months, casting the final sculpture in Fiberglas resin from the plaster or silicon mold made from the clay figure. The sculptor then adds pigment to create the translucency of the skin and details like the leg veins. He drills holes and punches monofilament fibers for eyelashes, stubble, hair and eyebrows one by one into the surface.
Another memorable, gigantic sculpture almost four-feet from chin to brow is "Mask II" (2001), the artist's sleeping self-portrait. Incredibly detailed and enigmatic, Mr. Mueck intends for people to examine the filled pores and ready-to-break pimples, nostril- and ear-hairs, slight frown and lines of a tired, middle-aged man. The mouth is squashed and slack. Look inside and pick out teeth, gums and even a little artificial saliva.
The painstakingly detailed work remains a question mark as Mr. Mueck apparently intended. He made an incredibly realistic image of himself in the vulnerable state of sleeping and called it "Mask." The artist implies that he, and everyone, are in the long run unknowable.
The newborn "Baby" is an essay in anger and relates most to "Big Man." The baby juts out elbows, clenches fists, purses lips and curls toes (Mr. Mueck uses tensed toes to great effect in these two sculptures and the earlier "Mother and Child"). The right child's "bug" eye is enormous and exaggerated. It's as if "Baby" is saying, "I don't want to be here, I want to go back to that nice, warm womb."
The end of life is represented by the more prosaic, half-sized "Untitled (Old Woman in Bed)" (2000), displayed on a three-foot pedestal. Everything the soft, cotton sheets, the waffle-patterned blankets is colored white, except for the dying woman's face. The old lady lies curled up in the fetal position, buried deep into her surroundings. She was his wife's much beloved grandmother.
Obviously, the artist's work goes beyond the usual definition of "realism." He inserts a mystery that makes viewers look long and hard. Much comes from his background in Melbourne, Australia, and his earlier career doing special effects for television. The son of toy makers, he spent much of his childhood alone making his own playthings.The sculptor had no formal art training beyond high school and learned craftsmanship and materials by making creatures and costumes.
This helped him when he worked in children's television, and in advertising as an animatronics technician and model maker. His expertise in figurative model making soon drew the attention of "Sesame Street" creator Jim Henson, who took him to London in the mid-1980s, where he stayed. Later, he started his own company, making models for advertisement photography.
His mother-in-law, the prominent painter Paula Rego, asked Mr. Mueck for a figure to use as a model for a series of Disney-inspired canvases. He made a half-size Pinocchio figure that caught the eye of collector Charles Saatchi while visiting Ms. Rego's studio. Mr. Saatchi gave him commissions to create several more figures and his career as a sculptor was launched.
The sculptor's years in special effects schooled him as a professional illusionist trained to make powerful fantasies by evoking perfect realities. Now, Mr. Mueck uses the contradictions of the fantasy-reality paradox to delve into the deeper questions confronting human beings. He is a slow worker, but the few images he produces yearly are bound to be challenging. It will be interesting where the images of the "Directions" show direct him next. The National Gallery in London has organized a large exhibit of his work that opens in December in Sidney, Australia and then travels to London in March 2003.

WHAT: "Directions Ron Mueck"
WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Ave. and 7th St. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Oct. 27, Thursdays until 8 p.m. through Aug. 29,
PHONE: 202/357-2700


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