Ron Mueck

[From The Gallery Insider Series]

Ron Mueck was a museum exhibition that took place at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from February 26 - August 13, 2017.

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The first thing one notices about Ron Mueck's sculptures is the hyperrealism ... it looks like real skin that you want to reach out and touch. The wrinkles, hair, and even the stubble are all very convincing. However, in Mueck's sculpture, it's the range of sizes and scale that transforms this work - since everything is either smaller or larger than life, the scale alters the realism and entices the viewer with a sense of wonder.

For example, the piece below is titled "Mask II," 2001-02, and it's a self-portrait of the artist at sleep. However, it's not life-sized, but rather scaled up nearly four times as large, measuring approximately 30 x 46 x 33 inches. One could look at it from this angle and wonder if he is dreaming, or why we see only the head and not any of his body. But that's where the title of the piece comes into play: there's a reason why it's called "Mask" - scroll down to see another view of this piece.

hyperrealist sculpture titled Mask II by Ron Mueck

Once you move beyond the straight-on view, you can see that this sculpture is indeed a "mask," with a thin shell that has no solid parts, despite the convincing front view that suggests a solid head.

Essential Question #1: While the title "Mask II" is descriptive of the object, what meaning might the artist be suggesting with this title?

The strength of this piece comes from the multiple meanings that can come from the various parts, such as:

  • The sculpture looks solid from the front, but reveals itself as a hollow shell from the back.
  • The larger-than-life scale gives it super-human presence, like it's the head of a giant or some other fantastical creature.
  • The title represents a description of the object, but it also suggests that things are not always what they seem at first glance.

The artist provides an interesting quote as to why he makes all of his sculptures either larger or smaller than life-sized:

"Life-size figures ... never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day. Altering the scale makes you take notice in a way that you wouldn't do with something that's just normal."

After starting with a larger-than-life piece, let's take a look at some smaller-than-life-size pieces below:

Back view of Mask II by the sculptor Ron Mueck

Below left we have: "Woman with shopping," 2013, 44 inches tall; below center: "Young couple," 2013, 35 inches tall; and below right: "Two women," 2005, 33 1/2 inches tall.

three hyperrealist sculptures by the sculptor Ron Mueck

Essential Question #2: What observations can you make from this grouping of sculptures?

A view thoughts that come to mind are:

  • Each sculpture is a pair of figures, so part of the dynamic is how the two figures relate to each other. The baby looks up to the mother, but the young couple and the old women look not at each other but in different directions.
  • We're seeing different stages of life: a young baby, teenagers, and older women. As the museum describes it: "these figures illustrate the artist's ongoing investigation of the cycle of life, from the first moment of consciousness, to young love, to the various stages of maturity and aging, and ultimately to oblivion."
  • Nobody here seems happy, but rather all of them are very serious and even quite grim. It makes it seem like something is not quite right for any of these people.

Here's an installation view from the exhibition that helps show the disparity of size and scale of the various works. In the foreground is "Couple under an umbrella," 2013, which has overall approximate dimensions of 10 x 13 x 11 1/2 feet. But in the background, you can see the same "Woman with shopping" as depicted above, on a pedestal with 3 museum visitors standing around it.

It's almost like three different realities at play, with small, regular-sized, and huge humans all inhabiting the same space.

Essential Question #3: what do you think is the biggest difference in how one experiences the large sculptures versus the small ones?

The smaller sculptures, placed on their pedestals, have the presence of an object, whereas the bigger sculptures almost become an environment, as one can walk in and around them, giving the sculpture a totally different appearance of being based on the angle from which it is viewed.

We've explored this concept before, in the large-scale sculpture of Alexander Calder and the walk-in diorama-like sculptures of J. Seward Johnson.

installation view of Ron Mueck exhibition at MFAH

It's helpful to have some background information on the artist Ron Mueck and what led up to his creation of these realistic sculptures. Ron Mueck was born in Melbourne, Australia, and his family owned a puppet and doll-making business. He spent the first two decades of his professional career as a model maker for film and television, including work for Jim Henson at the Muppet Workshop in New York City. In a 2002 interview, Mueck was quoted as saying:

"I don't know why I'm doing it [making hyperrealist sculptures] but I don't know what else I'd be doing. I'm not driven by art, it's just all I can do.

At right is a slideshow with more images from the exhibition, including multiple views of several pieces, along with views showing the museum viewer in relation to the size of the art work.

To learn more about Ron Mueck, check out his Wikipedia page here.

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