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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

(continued from page 1)

It was during that early studio visit that Auping set the stage for acquiring Seated Woman, an extraordinarily crafted, mixed-media sculpture of an old, hunched-over figure, primly seated in her cardigan and wool skirt, hands clasped on her knees, as if she were praying for a way out of her melancholic torpor. Though deliberately titled to avoid any personal connection to the artist, the work, which the museum bought in 2002 for $70,000, bears a striking likeness to Mueck's grandmother-in law. In fact, many of his creations are loosely modeled on friends and family.

"He thinks a lot about people," says Auping, "and for that reason I see Mueck almost as an outsider artist rather than a member of an avant-garde." London dealer Anthony d'Offay, who has exclusively represented Mueck since the "Sensation" show, agrees: "He's not from the art world, he's from a different world, and wasn't toughened up or bent out of shape by the international art world. So in a sense he remains fairly innocent."

In a way, Mueck's contemplative silence is a perfect foil for his psychologically charged sculptures that seem to spin tales of their own in the viewer's imagination without uttering a single word.

It is also one thing to view Mueck's extended family of remarkable creatures in a controlled museum environment, and quite another to experience them inside a collector's home.

"We have Dead Dad well protected," chuckles Stefan Edlis, a major contemporary art collector from Chicago. "He's under our Giacometti glass-topped coffee table because we didn't want to have a dead person in the middle of the living room. So we sit on the sofa and have our drinks looking down at Dead Dad."

Edlis acquired the sculpture from Charles Saatchi about two years ago for an undisclosed price, as well as Big Baby III, another early Mueck work from 1997.

Owning a Mueck is not easy, given both the fragility of the sculptures and the sometimes disturbing subject matter. One noted American collector, for instance, was extremely proud of Mother and Child, the artist's graphically shocking portrayal of a 35-inch-long nude woman who has just given birth, with the bodily fluid—smeared baby resting comfortably on her stomach, umbilical cord still attached. Flat on her back with knees raised, virtually nothing is left to the viewer's imagination. The sculpture resided proudly in the collector's bachelor digs until his wife-to-be insisted it had to go. "I don't think she even let him keep it in his office," says a source. The collector loaned the sculpture to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where it regularly drew gaping crowds.

Kent Logan, a Vail, Colorado, mega-collector and museum patron, had a different problem with the 1998 Man Under Cardigan, which featured an otherwise nude figure seemingly seeking shelter under the canopy of his outstretched sweater. "Our maid was afraid to go into the room," recalls Logan, "because she thought the piece was possessed."

There isn't anything prurient or macabre about Mueck's subject matter, though many of his hyper-real creations are nude, babies and overweight bald men. In fact, there's almost a religious purity about them, infusing the sculptures with vibrations of the Northern Renaissance or anonymous old masters. Classic themes, such as birth and death, love and loneliness, are evocatively explored. You can't detect an ounce of irony in any of the works.

"They're fantastic to live with and are so lifelike, it's almost like having friends in your place. I don't find them creepy at all," says another anonymous Mueck collector, who owns the 2005 sculpture Two Women, a pair of 33-inch-high fabulously wrinkled old women outfitted in wool overcoats and sensible shoes.


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