Edited by David Hurlston and published by Yale University Press, Ron Mueck offers the first exhaustive look into the life and work of the Australian artist who shocked the contemporary art world in 1997 with his all too real sculpture Dead Dad—a frail, shrunken, ghastly portrayal of his father lying supine and naked on the floor. Dead Dad, although just a small, solitary figure, evokes large, universal concerns; he looks like what someone (your father, his father, you) would look like naked and dead without the dramatics of splayed blood or the euphemism of funeral dress. He appears discarded and forgotten, his death banal. Remaining in his presence quickly becomes uncomfortable.
Then there’s Pregnant woman. Quite the opposite of Dead Dad, this woman is full of life. Her arms folded over her head, she looks down with her eyes closed and her mouth partly opened; she’s breathing. But much like Dead Dad, she’s naked, exposed, and out of context. At eight feet tall, her muscles and flesh tower over viewers. Still, Mueck didn’t forget the details that make her human, such as an armpit mole and clenched buttocks supporting newfound weight. But a pregnant woman shouldn’t be so isolated, amplified, and bare—it’s somehow inappropriate and too intimate.
David Hurlston calls this effect the “voyeuristic awkwardness” that viewers experience when confronting Mueck’s portraits. Take Man in a boat: a blanched, naked man with a tired pink flush around his eyelids, neck strained, face concerned and inquisitive as he sits in a raised wooden boat without oars. You look at him, and the embodiment of abandonment stares back. As Craig Raine writes in his essay, “This isn’t Everyman. He’s a particular bloke.” Indeed, the proliferating details in Mueck’s figures work in unity to convey a particular person experiencing a particular emotion at a particular time. It’s a powerful device, and it gives his sculptures life and thus agency to captivate—however disturbing that might be.
Mueck is an accomplished craftsman. Before he became an independent artist, he made puppets for an Australian children’s television program and later worked on a few Jim Henson productions. It was his mother-in-law, painter Paula Rego, who recognized his gift of instilling sculptures with life when she watched him create a realistic dragon on the beach using nothing but sand. She then requested that he construct a figure of Pinocchio for her in 1996. A year later, Mueck debuted at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in the controversial exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.” He’s been crafting sculpture for sculpture’s sake ever since.
In this volume, art experts and scholars respond to individual Mueck works. Some essays are more erudite than others. For example, Raine, in his short essay on Man in a boat, cites Baudelaire, Walter Pater, Pascal, T.S. Eliot, Borges, Moses, Rembrandt, and Leopold Bloom from Ulysses, as if he just finished studying for a humanities final. Ted Gott’s essay on Wild man summarizes the history of the bearded, libidinous Other. That said, all of the essays—even Raine’s and Gott’s, which are really meditations on reading—are deeply personal and help illuminate and, in some cases, ease the private thoughts and feelings evoked by Mueck’s works.
A generously illustrated book, Ron Mueck presents multiple views of every work discussed. The detailed photograph of Woman with sticks that wraps around the cover introduces readers to Mueck’s remarkably nuanced hyper-realism before they even open the book. Photographs of museum-goers confronting these uncanny sculptures demonstrate how Mueck plays with scale: a woman peers down across her shoulder at a larger-than-life newborn baby in A girl, and another looks up at a much smaller man wearing swim trunks and sunglasses like a middle-aged Ben Braddock in Drift. The book also offers a catalogue raisonné, which makes it a truly comprehensive and indispensable companion to one of contemporary sculpture’s most honest and ingenious artists.
edited by David Hurlston
190 pages, illustrated throughout, $30
Yale University Press in association with the National Gallery of Victoria