Human Scale: From Cradle to Grave


 Ugo Rondinone, Nude (xx) [2010], wax, earth pigments, steel rods, and polyurethane foam, 73 x 86 x 151.5 cm. NGC. Photo © Ugo Rondinone

The human body is the subject of a compelling exhibition on view for just five weeks at the National Gallery. Human Scale presents nine of the major contemporary sculptures acquired by the Gallery over the past 15 years. All depict the human body using a figurative approach, but in a decidedly contemporary manner, using scale and materials in unexpected ways.

Some of these sculptures will be familiar to visitors, such as Ron Mueck’s giant Head of a Baby (2003), one of the Gallery’s most popular contemporary works, and Evan Penny’s Jim Revisited (2011), a three-metre-high nude male that distorts reality and plays with perception. More recent acquisitions that have rarely, if ever, been seen in Ottawa are Ugo Rondinone’s pair of solitary figures, Nude (xx) and Nude (xxx) (2010), and Karin Sander’s Noemi 1:5 (2008). Also on view is Louise Bourgeois’ remarkable Arch of Hysteria (1993).

Jonathan Shaughnessy, the Gallery’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art and organizer of Human Scale, is excited about bringing these works together. “This is an opportunity to showcase some of the most revered and talked-about works in the permanent collection of contemporary art,” he said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Within the realm of possibilities for artists today — abstraction, conceptualism, and so on — these are artists who continue to interrogate figurative traditions, depicting the human form in a contemporary world, through the medium of sculpture.”

The Australian-born Mueck is well represented here, with three of his strikingly realistic sculptures and a fascinating video showing his technical process. Head of a Baby, measuring two and a half metres wide, greets the visitor with intense power. Despite its uncanny realism, this is the opposite of what one might expect in a sculpture of a baby. With puffy skin, steely eyes and monstrous size, this is anti-cute. Mueck has said that he is drawn to the “strangeness and alien-ness of a newborn,” and how it can come to dominate a household. A Girl (2006), with her elongated body, stiff arms and clenched fists, is equally monumental in size and forceful in character.


Ron Mueck, Head of a Baby (2003), silicone, fibreglas resin, and mixed media, 254 x 219 x 238 cm. NGC

In contrast to these oversized works, Mueck’s Untitled (Old Woman in Bed) (2000) is less than life-sized. Modelled after the artist’s grandmother-in-law, the sculpture depicts a beloved family member in the final days of her life, vulnerable and childlike as she curls up under a hospital blanket.

Raised in a family of toymakers and with a background making models for television, film and advertising, Mueck uses a meticulous, labour-intensive process to produce his sculptures. He starts with clay maquettes and scale drawings, then builds an armature, covering it with successive layers of clay, plaster, silicone, resin, paint and hair. What makes his sculptures most powerful, however, is their emotional intensity — how they convey hope, fear, disappointment, love, loneliness and alienation. “Although I spend a lot of time on the surface,” the artist has said, “it’s the life inside I want to capture.”

Canadian sculptor Evan Penny has been making sculptural busts and nudes for four decades, but it was an encounter with Mueck's sculptures in the 1990s that caused him to think closely about hyperrealism in his own practice. Jim Revisited (2011) and Arnaud, Variation #2 (2013) are the result of Penny’s ongoing investigation into how classicism, romanticism and photography can inform representations of the human figure in contemporary realist sculpture. In particular, Penny is interested in the subjectivity of spatial perception and its dependence on light, colour and proximity.

Jim Revisited is based on an earlier sculpture, Jim (1985), which was a smaller-than-life-sized nude standing in a pose reminiscent of Michelangelo's David. For Jim Revisited, the artist used 3D technology to scan the earlier Jim, then resized and manipulated it to exaggerate the stance, similar to how photographers use darkroom manipulation and Photoshop. The result is disorienting: Jim Revisted appears off-kilter.


Evan Penny, Arnaud, Variation #2 (2013), silicone, pigment, hair, and aluminum, 63.5 x 71.1 x 23 cm. NGC

Likewise, Arnaud, Variation #2, a portrait of the late Canadian photographer Arnaud Maggs begun shortly before his death, appears distorted when viewed from the side. Classically posed, with angular features and clear blue eyes, he looks alert and intelligent, but at the same time, exposed, with his bare shoulders and transparent-looking skin.

Louise Bourgeois is perhaps best known to visitors as the creator of Maman (1999, cast 2003), the giant spider on the Gallery’s plaza. Bourgeois’ Arch of Hysteria is a more intimate but equally unsettling work: a life-sized bronze sculpture of a headless figure suspended from a wire, with a tightly arched back. The work was inspired by the theories of 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who studied so-called hysteria in women and described their sporadic arched posture. Bourgeois plays with gender roles, however, rendering the figure androgynous, and she removes the head because, as she once said, “I did not need to clutter the picture with unnecessary items.”

In a career spanning 80 years, the French-born Bourgeois explored personal experiences, especially childhood trauma, sexuality and fear, in works made in varied media. As Shaughnessy remarks, “it was really in working with both traditional sculpture materials, like bronze and marble, and less conventional ones, from fabrics to rubber, that she made some of her most evocative expressions of the body in relation to human psychology.” Indeed, Arch of Hysteria conveys an intense sense of tension, pain and vulnerability.

Image removed due to copyright restrictions.

Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria (1993), bronze with silver nitrate patina, 83.8 x 101.5 x 58.4 cm. NGC. © The Easton Foundation

With Nude (xx) and Nude (xxx), Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone addresses the theme of vulnerability in a different way. The two life-sized figures, modelled after friends, sit on the floor in casual poses with downcast eyes, projecting a sense of solitude and longing. Made of cast paraffin tinted with earth-coloured pigments, they have splits, cracks and gaps revealing the metal armature beneath. Their appearance of fragility is enhanced by the knowledge that wax is a material generally lost in the process of traditional bronze casting.

German artist Karin Sander explores the relationship of art to subject, museums, commerce and public reception. Noemi 1:5 is a miniature figure of a young girl, casually dressed in tee-shirt and jeans, standing on a plaster plinth. The work is part of a series of “self-portraits” of museum visitors that Sander has created using 3D printing technology and a performance-based approach. Installing a body scanner in galleries and art fairs, she invites visitors to pose and have their bodies scanned. Later, she uses the data files to create plastic sculptures with a 3D printer. “This is a radical take on what distinguishes a sculptural object today,” says Shaughnessy, “by an artist who chooses to take technology that’s available to everyone, and form works intended specifically for a gallery context. In that way she brings everyday subjects into the history of art.”

Indeed, despite the monumentality of some of these figures, Human Scale is not about heroism, but rather about familiarity and intimacy. “What’s interesting,” says Shaughnessy, “is how many contemporary artists counter traditions of monumental sculpture. Certainly none of the works here are monuments. Rather, what we see as a thread in the show is a real emphasis on everyday subjects. It’s really the everyday that is being commemorated, and that’s what’s important.”

Human Scale is on view at the National Gallery from March 11 to April 17, 2016.

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