On Feb. 26, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened exhibit of sculptures by Australian artist Ron Mueck. The work on display will be hyper-realistic, large scale sculptures, displaying people in everyday situations. So hyper-realistic, in fact—showing everything from eyelashes, to wrinkles, blue veins, and stubble—they are almost unrealistic in its uncomfortable grotesqueness. The scale of the sculptures range from puny renditions of foot-tall adults, to enormous, over 15-foot long newborn babies. This large-scale hyper-realism sets Mueck apart as a trailblazing artist.
Aside from these sculptures being somewhat controversial and extraordinarily unique for modern sculpture, this is the first exhibit of its kind curated by the MFAH, which has generally featured special exhibits of Impressionism and19th and early 20th century paintings. A modern sculpture exhibit, then, is a very different show for the MFAH. They do have a small permanent modern art collection, displaying art mainly from the late 20th century, but nothing along the lines of hyper-realism and 21st century sculpture—nothing this tendentious. Could the MFAH be trying to reach a new audience with this show?
Mueck formerly worked as a model-maker for film and television shows, notably working under puppeteer Jim Henson (of The Muppets fame); he eventually made his foray into fine art in the 1990s. His sculptures, of polarizing subject matter, have garnered mixed reviews. They range from quaint domestic scenes—a young couple holding hands— to the off-putting and disturbing—a realistic depiction of a freshly dead body, or a detailed model of a mother in the final stages of giving birth. Although the extraordinarily lifelike renditions of people may be controversial, the meaning behind them is something every human can relate to. Each figure is cast in an important moment in life, and all viewed together they depict the full circle of life, from hopeful birth to unavoidable death.
Crafted out of silicone, acrylic, and fiberglass, the people are caught in various states–deep in thought on a boat, the moment a mother first sees her child, and even more basic states, such as sleep and death. The figures, although they appear to be living objects, have a calm stillness about them and wear expressions of contentment from the very first breath of life to the very last. The sculptures are a poignant analysis of life and humanity and work to reassure the viewer that even though death and “eventual oblivion” is an inescapable fact of life, there are many moments that make beautiful. The piece-de-resistance, which perhaps sums up the significance of the show, is “Girl”, a 15-foot long newborn baby girl cracking her eyes open for the first time. It is beautiful sculpture: underneath the blood and wrinkly skin of a newborn is the embodiment of fresh hope, newness, and innocence.
Mueck rarely gives interviews, which leaves the meaning of his work open to interpretation. Without the weight of a concrete artist-explained meaning, the viewer is allowed to perceive and understand each object however he or she wants to.
The hyper-realistic and expressionistic rendering of humans in Mueck’s hearkens back to sculptures by Leonardo Da Vinci, who famously treated his marble works like real people, and Franz Messerschmidt, the Austrian sculptor of “character heads,” which display similar realistic expressions as Mueck’s people. Mueck’s Mask II shows a man deep in sleep and is a somewhat modern interpretation of such character heads. It is interesting to look at Mueck’s sculptures not as the starkly modern artworks they appear to be, but as sculptures that draw on past works such as “David” and 18th century busts. It shows that artists have been studying the human condition through sculpture for many centuries, and looking at it through that lens may make the exhibition more understandable to the MFAH’s established visitor base who may not have seen sculpture like this before.
The Ron Mueck exhibit is on view through Aug. 13