Ron Mueck, “Couple Under an Umbrella,” 2013. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Ron Mueck opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this past weekend, an exhibition that’s been years in the making. Mueck’s work is known around the globe for its haunting and hyperrealistic figures trapped in frozen moments of contemplation. His subjects hold an essence of displacement and discomfort, bringing the viewer in to explore these expressions. “Ever since I saw his work when the group show “Sensation” traveled from the Royal Academy to Brooklyn 1999, his work has been under my skin. For almost 20 years I have been provoked and impressed by Ron Mueck’s balance of the real and unreal,” states Alison De Lima Greene, Contemporary curator at the MFAH. Mueck didn’t hit the ground running as a contemporary artist. The Australian born artist began his early career working as the Creative Director for a children’s TV show, Shirl’s Neighbourhood, where he also made, voiced, and operated the puppets on the show. In TV and film he eventually began working as a creator and puppeteer with such greats as Jim Henson on projects including The Labyrinth and The Storyteller. It wasn’t until 1996 that Mueck began working as a fine artist and began collaborating with his mother-in-law Paula Rego. It was Rego that introduced him to Charles Saatchi, who immediately took a shining to his work and began commissioning and collecting his latest creations.
Mueck employs a very interesting process that compels me to his work. Surprisingly, he does not compose his pieces based on real people. Seeing his work and the attention to detail, you might think that he at least works from photographs of his subjects, but that’s not the case. His works spawn from drawings and contain no real ongoing narrative. The relationships to the figures are ambiguous. Mueck captures moments, while isolating himself from the world around him during creation, often times spending a year on a figure. The subjects tend to stand still in an ambiguous place in time, remaining in a limbo. His ever changing scale from large to small, small to large presents a disjunction while pushing unrealism to realism. I found myself as close as I could possibly get to the sculptures to investigate the features, the distressed facial expressions, the pores, the complexions. The choice of size is not random and even the pedestals are mandated with specific heights so as to lead the viewer to see as Mueck wants you to see. The pedestals are presented in such a way that although many are very close to walls, there is just enough space welcoming you to walk around them. Interestingly enough, even the lighting and wall color is chosen specifically for each show to ensure the proper elements of the setting to appropriately display his works.
The exhibition lacks chronological order and is not intended to contain a theme or story line. In fact, as De Lima Greene states, “The show is as satisfying walking in from the exit as it is entering from the front.” As you walk through the show you feel heavy, very much like the people Mueck presents. Many of them stare at the ground or with a thousand yard stare, unless the viewer breaks this site line, which only passes through them. There are only two of his 40 pieces that he has made that actually came from real life models. One of his first pieces, entitled “Dead Dad,” was a miniature of the body of his deceased father, and even contained Mueck’s own hair, with this being the only piece to do so. “Women with Shopping” features a woman Mueck saw in London looking blankly waiting to cross the street. She is loaded down with groceries and a child is stuffed into her jacket, with only the head popping out of the collar. Dressed monochromatically, she is almost embedded, standing for an eternal amount of time. As individuals or pairs, they merely remain in a mystery of emotion.
It’s apparent that in many pieces, things are not exactly as they appear. This can be seen in one of the anchor pieces, “Mask II,” an oversized self portrait of Mueck’s own face. Beautiful as it lays heavy and half squished for those to creep in uncomfortably close, like watching someone sleep inches from their face. The face remains unconscious and unaware of your presence. Walking around it, you see an empty shell of a man’s head. There is no back to it and the viewer is to become aware of this. The mask, as it is called, is not just an ironic description of his face, but a literal one. With “Young Couple,” the work presents a teenage couple, standing close to each other, dressed ordinarily with almost pained faces. As no preset narrative is given to you, it appears the boy is consoling the young girl, as if they are both sharing this unpleasantry. The girl hangs her head with the boy, who is much taller, almost as to resting his head against hers or deciding whether to do so. The girl does not grasp or hug her partner, but has her hands dropped to her sides. When you decide to walk around the figures, you see the boy is grasping her forearm, although their bodies obstruct this fact. This made me feel immediately uncomfortable. It is as if seeing your friends from across the park engaged in a tantalizing conversation only to hear upon approach they are involved in a heated argument. One gets this feeling from many of the pieces in the show. The Mueck ‘people’ certainly wear the perfume of loneliness, but there is certainly a darkness with each piece. “Couple Under an Umbrella” depicts two elderly beach goers lounging under the warm glow of a colorful umbrella. The woman sits with a slight hunch about her as her male counterpart lays flat on the floor with his head resting against her. He reclines with a clueless tranquility as she stares down upon him. As one approaches these large beach giants, you think, “Oh, look at them having a nice holiday in the sun.” However, she isn’t beaming with joy. The two of them are not much of anything. Upon walking through the exhibition with London’s Charlie Clark, who has been a long time friend and has worked closely with Mueck for years, he stated, “We don’t even know if they are together or if she cares for him at all.” So it comes not as a projection from myself, but from Mueck himself. There isn’t one smiling face in the collection. Its as if they have all just awakened from a deep sleep and they are taking that minute to get their bearings.
Moments of tranquility are present in a few of the works. By tranquility I mean the expressions are not entirely pained, but there certainly much to think about as you walk around with a furrowed brow. “Youth” displays an African American youth standing as he pulls up his shirt. Looking down, he peers at a wound in his abdomen. His shirt is slightly bloodied, but the wound is substantial. He stands barefoot and doesn’t seemed to be bothered by it at the moment. The didactic tells a story of resurrection and relation to Christ. Perhaps he is Christ after he arises and looks over his body only to see the laceration. Even the height of this pedestal is similar to that of a religious statue posted in a church or holy place. This may be one of the heaviest pieces in the show. It is also the only figure that is physically wounded. Maybe he has fallen off his bike or maybe the injury was inflicted upon him? There is more to ponder about, for instead of feeling an emotional pain as the others, you feel both physically and emotionally over his wound.
The entire collection of Mueck’s work has depth to it and doesn’t just rely on his ability to create lifelike people of the everyday. European art history flows strongly through the works, giving moments of Lucien Freud and Albrecht Durer as you review his pieces. His work “Still Life,” an enormous featherless chicken, hangs lifeless as if about to be added into a Dutch painting surrounded with flowers, glasses of wine, and a strange looking feline. It’s clear there remains an embedded thought process with all the figures we see of Mueck’s creations. More than just the making process and welcoming our interpretations.
As you make the final conclusion through the exhibition and into the final room you are sent on your way by “Girl,” a room sized infant. The viewer is forced upon this piece and into the environment. The new child is still covered in blood and awaiting that slap on the back to bring air into the lungs. A few times around the child you take in all the details of this little-large body sprawled with its still-attached umbilical cord. Mueck provides a deep look into the time in between moments. Viewing his subjects not as objects of portraits but as a means of exposing an accurate in-depth window into human essence. Mueck’s figures are elaborate puzzles, each one with a different message to be uncovered. Within his reality, much like our own, first glances are deceiving and misguided. There are many instances of loneliness throughout the exhibition, but the individuals populating the show are far from still and alone. It’s the reflection of ourselves in the subjects that give them motion.
Ron Mueck will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through August 13, 2017.