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Master of Reality

Whether Lilliputian or Goliath in scale, Ron Mueck's über-realistic sculptures leave a lasting impression
Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

A disembodied and giant male face studded in grubby stubble, a spooning pair of tense lovers, a nude baby boy hanging crucifixion-style on a wall. These are just some of the unusual creations you'll come across in the hyper-sculptural world of Ron Mueck. In barely a decade of art making, the Australian-born puppet maker and self-taught artist has become an international art star. He's been feted by a string of major museum exhibitions that have drawn record-breaking crowds and he's been avidly sought after by some of the world's top contemporary art collectors for a chance to own one of his startlingly realistic fiberglass sculptures. At age 49, Mueck ranks high in the pantheon of contemporary sculptors.

"He's able to imbue these objects with something that people recognize as life [but] that goes beyond the look of things, something psychological, something emotional," says Charles Desmarais, deputy director for art at the Brooklyn Museum and the organizer of the recent Mueck exhibition that drew over 250,000 viewers. That assessment fits in with what the reclusive artist once confided to a curator: "Although I spend a lot of time on the surface, it's the life inside I want to capture."

Before his great leap to art stardom, Mueck carved out a distinctive though decidedly low-profile career as a puppet and model maker in television and film, most notably collaborating with the late Jim Henson on two feature films, Dreamchild and Labyrinth.

Mueck catapulted into the public eye in 1996 when his mother-in-law, the celebrated figurative British painter Paula Rego, asked him to make a model of Pinocchio for one of her Disney-themed paintings slated for an exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery. The 33-inch-high boy, sculpted out of fiberglass, adorned with untold layers of pigment and human hair, and innocently outfitted in snow-white BVDs, is considered one of Mueck's first mature sculptures. It was exhibited alongside Rego's quirky, expressionist paintings.

Mueck's Pinocchio caught the eye of Charles Saatchi, the former advertising titan who had gone on to become a mega-collector and art movement maker. Saatchi instantly commissioned Mueck to create more sculptures and invited the virtually unknown artist to participate in the landmark "Sensation" show. Formally titled "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection," the exhibit featured Mueck and some 40 other red-hot YBAs (as they became known as). The show opened with a huge media bang in London at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997.

One of Mueck's arresting contributions, Dead Dad, a pint-sized silicone and acrylic full-frontal nude of his recently deceased father, caused its own sensation. Splayed out flat on his back, the riveting 40 1/8-inch-long figure, from his stubbly 5'o'clock shadow to his sallow skin, flaccid private parts and just dead-looking demeanor, entranced museumgoers. The diminution of scale and startling perspective, coupled with extraordinary anatomical details, created a kind of morbid tour de force, more akin to Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin than anything cutting-edge or contemporary.

As it turns out, the sculpture, in all of its necromantic magnificence, was created as a humble homage to the elder Mueck, who had recently died in Australia and was buried before the artist could arrange passage from his home in London.

The work stood out in that super-hyped talent pool and was every bit as controversial as the epically scaled, pickled and glass-encased tiger shark of YBA prince Damien Hirst.

Mueck's ongoing dialogue with the old masters got a big jolt in 2000 when he was granted exclusive after-hours access to London's National Gallery of Art for two years, a privilege accorded to just a handful of contemporary artists, including David Hockney and Lucian Freud. Four sculptures inspired from that experience were exhibited at the gallery at the end of his tenure there, including the 2001 work Mother and Child, a startling realistic rendering of a mother with her newborn.

Unlike most of Mueck's mediagenic contemporaries, getting any kind of sound bite from the artist about his work and life is virtually impossible since Mueck doesn't and hasn't granted interviews. He remains unwaveringly media phobic. "I remember he said like four words the whole time I was in his studio back in 1998, and I don't think he's changed much since then," recalls Michael Auping, the chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where Mueck's mid-career survey of 13 works is on view through October 21.

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