Imitation and Illusion: Ron Mueck at the WAG
Ron Mueck, A Girl (2006), acrylic on polyester resin and fibreglas, 110.5 x 134.5 x 501 cm. Purchased 2007 with the assistance of a contribution from F. Harvey Benoit and Dr. Lynne Freiburger-Benoit. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC
Australian artist Ron Mueck has made an international name for himself creating work evoking the human experience. His hyper-realistic sculptures capture life from its very beginnings, to its end, and beyond. Unlike others throughout the history of Western Art, however, he has not chosen a grand narrative to depict themes of life, death, love and loss. Instead, he uses intimate, recognizable subjects for his work, allowing him to touch the widest possible audience.
Born in Melbourne in 1958, Mueck began his career as a puppet-maker, later moving to London, England, where he worked for Jim Henson on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. He eventually began working in film, supervising special effects for Dreamchild (1985) and Labyrinth (1986), the latter starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly.
Mueck’s career as an artist can be traced to 1996, when he used his now-signature style to create a sculpture of Pinocchio for his mother-in-law, painter Paula Rego. Displayed with a series of Rego’s paintings at London’s Hayward Gallery, Mueck’s Pinocchio caught the attention of British contemporary art patron and gallery owner Charles Saatchi, who commissioned a series of works. A year later, Mueck’s inclusion in the exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, thrust him into the spotlight.
Mueck was also the subject of a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 2007. Bringing together work from a range of international collections, the exhibition was, for many visitors, their first encounter with the artist’s often-unsettling sculptures. “The figures seem to be alive,” noted the Gallery’s promotional text for the exhibition. “Every detail – veins, wrinkles, moles, body hair, rashes – is crafted to such perfection that the result is remarkably convincing and deeply troubling. The size of the works – always smaller or larger than human scale – is equally disconcerting.”
Visitors to the Winnipeg Art Gallery can now view two of Mueck’s iconic works — A Girl (2006), and Untitled [Old Woman in Bed] (2000) — for the first time, thanks to an ongoing partnership between the National Gallery and the WAG. The NGC@ partnership program enables institutions such as the WAG, the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art in Toronto, and the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton to stage exhibitions featuring works from the NGC’s collection.
Ron Mueck, Untitled (Old Woman in Bed), 2000, silicone rubber, polyester resin, cotton, polyurethane foam, polyester and oil paint, 24 x 94.5 x 56 cm; pedestal: 100.3 x 94.5 x 56 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC
“Mueck lives in Great Britain,” says Andrew Kear, the WAG’s Curator of Historical Canadian Art, and curator of the exhibition. “Most of his works are either in Europe or his native Australia. You can count, on one hand, the number of Mueck works that are in institutional collections in the United States; but it just so happens that the National Gallery has three major pieces by him. The NGC@WAG partnership offers us an amazing opportunity to bring an artist who makes very rare and captivating work, to a wide audience, to Winnipeg.”
The exhibition also features a dozen additional objects, including resin maquettes, sketches and other materials related to the making of the five-metre-long sculpture, A Girl. The display case featuring these items will take viewers through Mueck’s process, bringing them closer to the way he works. “When someone sees Mueck’s sculptures for the first time, they’re immediately blown away by the kind of technical rigour they involve,” says Kear. “The question people almost always ask themselves, especially when they see something on the scale of A Girl, is not just what was going through the artist’s mind when he came up with it, but how he achieved it.”
A Girl depicts a naked infant, right after birth as she breathes her first breath, the umbilical cord illustrating the passage from the womb into the world. The sculpture dwarfs visitors who stand before it, creating a notional conflict between the massive size of the work, and its depiction of a powerless baby that has just completed its first exhausting task: being born.
Untitled [Old Woman in Bed] on the other hand, is much smaller — less than life-sized — and depicts an ordinary woman at the end of her life, possibly breathing her last as she almost disappears beneath her blankets. “She is not miniature,” notes Kear, “but is this weird in-between size where she could almost represent a small living person. You don’t read her simply as a sculpture.”
To Kear, this use of scale is disarming. “It introduces Mueck’s practice of making strangely scaled sculptures — not simply for their exaggerated realism, but more because he wants to create this discomfort. Obviously an infant is quite small, and now we have it blown up. And an old woman is starting to shrink, and we have her returning to the earth in a way. Together they make for a compelling reflection on the cycle of life.”
The Mueck exhibition is being staged in the gallery adjacent to Olympus: The Greco-Roman Collections of Berlin, which features more than 160 works from the National Museums in Berlin. “You go through that show, where you have one take on the human figure: the classical ideal,” says Kear. “Then you exit that gallery, and come across Ron Mueck, which is a completely different take on the human body and mortality. Bringing Mueck here was a no-brainer. The fact that it’s displayed alongside this Greco-Roman exhibition will, I think, make for some really interesting discussions among our visitors.”
NGC@WAG: Ron Mueck is on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until October 4, 2015. The exhibition is co-organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. For more information, please click here.