For Australian artist Ron Mueck, the emotional resonance of his sculptures is magnified by their use of scale. Having once said, "I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day," Mueck instead minimizes his subjects to fit atop tabletops or magnifies them so that viewers stand in the shadows of a giant newborn baby or a menacing, wild-haired man.
A decade after his groundbreaking 2007 exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — the most attended at the time — Mueck returns with "New Works," on view February 16 through May 6, 2018.
Modeled in clay then cast in silicone by the artist, each of Mueck’s hyper-realistic humans is notable for their ability to inspire emotion in the viewer, be it the pathos of the three-foot, baby-toting Woman with Shopping to the larger-than-life love story of the 11-foot Couple Under an Umbrella.
"Drawing upon memory and reality, Mueck's lifelike sculptures are instantly relatable on a human level," says the Modern’s senior curator, Andrea Karnes. "Because he so often portrays easily identifiable experiences, as in Woman with Shopping, we immediately understand the situation through compassion. Yet Mueck's calculated shifts in scale throw us off by adding an element of ambiguity between reality and artifice. Altering scale also influences our emotional response to the artist's works — the woman in the piece is less than four feet tall, which reinforces the idea that she feels overwhelmed."
Raised by German puppeteers and doll makers, Mueck grew up to work in the family business, creative directing a series of Australian children's shows. He eventually joined the legendary Jim Henson in his New York Muppets workshop and provided the puppetry and voice for the gentle giant Ludo in the film Labyrinth.
Eventually relocating to London, Mueck didn't enter the world of fine art until painter Paula Rego (his mother-in-law) asked him to contribute to a group exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. Spotted by notable collector Charles Saatchi, Mueck's sculptures, including Dead Dad (modeled on his father), were a highlight of Saatchi’s legendary 1997 "Sensation" show, and a sculptural star was born.
Having mounted solo exhibitions at the likes of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain in Paris, the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro, and Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, Mueck's work resonates around the world because of its ease fitting into the trajectory of figurative art.
Historians and critics cite everyone, from Dutch masters such as Johannes Vermeer to Lucian Freud, as the sculptor's spiritual ancestors. But it's how Mueck can leave the narrative strand of his work to the viewer's imagination that elevates it above other works portraying a more traditional version of humanity.
Says Karnes, "His sculptures resonate with viewers on a deep level, and this is true of figurative work in general — we respond to our own likenesses. We immediately identify when looking at a human form."
However, she notes, "The artist's shifting of scale takes the subject from ordinary to hyper-real. The difference in scale and the isolated natures of the subjects makes people pay attention to the human condition."
Encompassing seven pieces created between 2008 and 2018, "New Works" really only features new-to-North America pieces: the nearly nine-foot tall male nude Poke and seven-foot Still Life, Mueck’s first non-human work, which depicts the carcass of a plucked chicken.
Because of what Karnes calls Mueck's "strange believability," viewers are inspired to examine the work more closely than they might normally. She hopes that "New Works" will inspire repeated visits during the show's run.
"There is no way to name a favorite work," she says. "It really is a matter of what strikes you on a particular day or time. Each of us can relate to more than one figure one day, and another the next. That's why Mueck's special project will be worth seeing over and over again."