Ron Mueck - Register of Artists' Models
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Ron Mueck at the National Gallery

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DAVE HINCHEY reviews the latest exhibition by the master of superealism

This exhibition features four hyper-realist sculptures of the human body created by the Australian-born artist Ron Mueck. As artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, Mueck was required to produce works in response to the Gallery's collection.

Mueck's images of people are incredibly lifelike, using materials such as fibreglass, silicone, paint and hair to create a convincing illusion of reality similar to but surpassing that of ordinary waxwork figures. Only the size of the subjects gives them away, normally being considerably smaller or larger than life. Mueck's expertise and technical skills come from his background in special-effects model-making for film, advertising and TV. Several RAM members have been involved in the creation of his previous works, including John Lloyd, the model for Big Man (2000), a figure of a giant, hairless, grumpy man sitting sulking in a corner.

Mother and Child (2002) shows a woman who has just given birth and is approximately half life-size.  She lies there naked with her knees up and legs apart, her long hair damp with sweat.  A pink, glistening baby rests on her bulging belly, facing her, the umbilical cord still attached, trailing from her vagina.  The mother's face is blank from exhaustion or shock, unable to respond to this little creature that has emerged from her womb.  (The child's scowling, wrinkled features seem to prove the notion that all new-born babies look like Winston Churchill).  However, the gynaecological details on display make for uncomfortably voyeuristic viewing, leaving the feeling of intruding on a private, intimate moment.

Man in a Boat (2002) has a little naked man (about half life-size) sitting at the front of a real (full-sized) rowing boat.  He is middle-aged and paunchy, his arms folded as he peers into the distance, his eyes evading any contact with the viewer.  Deprived of oars, he has no way of controlling the course of his battered old boat and faces an uncertain future.  This piece complements Mother and Child as both show a small figure on top of a longer, larger form.  Using a vessel as a metaphor for birth is also a traditional symbol of the Immaculate Conception, although Ron Mueck was unaware of this at the time of making Man in a Boat.  The whole figure was cast in silicone, from a mould made using a clay sculpture, to enable body hair to be inserted, a strand at a time.

Pregnant Woman (2002) is a giantess, standing two-and-a-half metres tall.  Her arms are raised and folded over her head, her puffy eyes closed in exhaustion, her belly distended to colossal proportions, its skin stretched to breaking-point.  Her body is painted fibreglass, but her skin texture is rendered with remarkable realism and warmth; veins, moles, goose-pimples and shaved hair follicles are visible on closer inspection.  As with his other works, Mueck's attention to detail is impeccable, even under intense scrutiny, challenging the viewer to find any defect in his craftsmanship.  The woman's face is recognizable as veteran RAM member, Anna Barnes.

Swaddled Baby (2002) is a departure for Mueck in that it is life-sized, albeit very small.  The tiny infant rests sleeping on a pillow, with only its face and a wisp of hair peeking out from the white cotton material around its head, its body tightly wrapped like a parcel in brown cloth, secured with string.  The baby has a Buddha-like contentment in its blissful slumber, totally free from worry and responsibility, in contrast to the other figures in the exhibition, who are very conscious of their plight and the difficulties of human life.

Also on show is a display case with some of the artist's preparatory models and sketches.  A half-hour videotape, documenting Mueck's working methods, and an informative catalogue are also available.  The catalogue has a charming photo of the faces of the 4 babies that the artist made before deciding to show just one swaddled infant.  If you study them carefully, they all have different expressions; a sign of individuality even at this very early stage of life.

This is an impressive exhibition that leaves you wanting more, although obviously its size was limited by the labour-intensive nature of the four sculptures' creation.  Unlike some of his gimmicky, sensationalist contemporaries in the art world, Ron Mueck's talents will ensure his name and reputation endure long after many lesser figures have been forgotten.

This exhibition was held at the National Gallery in the Summer of 2003

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