Ron Mueck’s Hyperreal Sculptures

Ron Mueck Old Couple progress
It’s the disconcerting yet familiar essence of artist Ron Mueck’s extraordinary life-like sculptures that makes them so universally compelling. Vogue Living London editor Fiona McCarthy spoke to Mueck’s longtime collaborator Charlie Clarke about the sculptor’s current exhibition in Paris.

Australian-born, London-based hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck would rather get on with the task at hand, creating extraordinary faultlessly life-like ‘people’, from naked men in boats to swaddled babies, wild-looking women carrying sticks to hairless elderly men crouched in a corner than spend talking about who they are, and more keenly, what he wants others to feel about them. “Ron doesn’t like to present himself to the world as an artist,” says long-time collaborator Charlie Clarke, who helps to stage the reclusive Mueck’s extraordinary pieces, some of which are only as long as your outstretched arm (such as the figure of a black teenager in Youth, 2009) to those which encompass almost an entire room (In Bed, 2005, features a larger-than-life woman tucked up in bed, as the title suggests, on permanent display at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art). “He doesn’t stand on a soapbox with his manifesto about what he’s trying to do, he just likes to work – he’s reluctant to talk formally about his work because he works in a purely visual way and doesn’t want to prescribe the feeling or emotion you should feel when you look at one of his pieces.”

At once grotesque yet beguiling, disconcerting yet familiar, Mueck’s work has been bought and sold (often for hundreds of thousands of dollars) and exhibited around the world since he first debuted as part of Charles Saatchi’s controversial 1997 Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.linebreak

mueck-drift

A former model maker (he worked with Jim Henson on The Muppets and the film Labyrinth), Saatchi discovered Mueck after visiting the studio of acclaimed British artist Paula Rego, Mueck’s mother-in-law, for whom he had created a small figure of an impish-faced young boy dubbed Pinocchio. Since then, Mueck has worked steadily, his hyperreal figures cast in fibreglass, resin and silicone and brought painstakingly to life with a steady hand and a use of mixed-media materials such as synthetic hair and real clothes.

Often preferring to work on his own, for Mueck, the making of the piece plays a crucial part of its meaning, starting with sketches and small plaster maquettes which are then sculpted from clay, and then finally forming shapes in tougher dental plaster rather than the usual plaster of Paris. According to the National Gallery’s Colin Wiggins – where Mueck was artist in residence in 1999, Mueck’s work depends on absolute perfection (right down to showing the tiniest of details, like veins, moles and goose bumps). “The slightest trace of a seam or technical blemish would ruin the illusion and the piece would lose its power.”

Mueck works from a variety of reference sources, from live models and memories of people on the street to photography – “what I have to do in the end is consciously abandon the model and go for what feels right,” he has explained in the past. “Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in duplication – sometimes, what feels right is not what actually is right; I end up distorting the work in order to enhance the feeling of the piece rather than to make it look precisely like a person.”
At any given time or day, depending on how you, the viewer, feels, or how the sculptures themselves have been placed in a room, Clarke says they can look and feel very different. Mueck agrees. “I certainly haven’t worked out histories for them. Sometimes, if I haven’t seen them for a while, it’s like seeing a relative you’ve been out of touch with – except they haven’t gotten any older.”linebreak

mueck-drift-progress

It is our reaction to them, argues Grazia Quaroni, curator of the forthcoming exhibition of Mueck’s most recent work at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, that brings them truly to life. “The high degree of realism in the texture and colour of the skin is astonishing but there is something about them that makes it easy for anyone to start a conversation with these ‘beings.”linebreak

Ron Mueck Woman With Sticks

This will be the second exhibition of Mueck’s work hosted by the Fondation Cartier – the first, held in 2005, boasted the highest number of visitors ever to attend a solo show held at the foundation – and alongside sculptures, including Woman With Sticks (2008) and Drift (2009), shown at his show with Hauser & Wirth in London last year, three new sculptures will be seen for the first time: two teenagers in the street, a mother and baby and an elderly couple on the beach. You may have only just seen one of Mueck’s sculptures for the first time, Quaroni furthers, but “there is something about them that you feel you’ve seen or dreamt already; they are part of a common experience that goes beyond needing to know about the artist or what he intended.”

Ron Mueck’s exhibition is on display at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, until 29 September 2013.

Words: Fiona McCarthy
Photography: Gautier Deblonde

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