In like skin
By Juliet Herd, The Australian, 21dec02
RON Mueck is surveying his vast self-portrait, enigmatically entitled Mask II, and finding all manner of fault with it. "I just see all the things that don't look like me," the hyper-realist Australian-born sculptor says mournfully. "The nose is way too short, the face and ears should be longer and there should be more spots."
To the casual observer, the colossal sleeping head – almost 1.2m from chin to brow – could not be more realistic or less kind to its subject, with its rough stubble, nostril and ear hairs, pores and pimples. The slack, slightly open mouth offers a glimpse of teeth, gums and even saliva. Yet Mueck remains far from convinced.
"I feel older than he looks," he insists. "If anything, he doesn't look old or tired enough; he's far too peaceful." The artist may see himself as middle-aged and deeply lined but, in the flesh as opposed to fibreglass resin, he's a youthful 44 with a lean, sensitive face and brutally short haircut.
Since Mueck first burst on to the young British art scene five years ago when his naked, half life-size sculpture of his father, Dead Dad, was one of the hits of the Royal Academy's controversial Sensation exhibition, he has acquired a reputation for being excruciatingly media-shy. Although his natural wariness gives him an air of mystery, an asset in such a highly competitive, image-driven business, it quickly becomes apparent that his shyness is genuine.
He rarely submits to interviews and is coaxed into doing this one only on the pretext of having a brief chat, which turns into an extended discourse on the never-before-seen works he is showing from this month in his first Australian exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. His discomfort, though, is apparent when the photographer arrives and for a few anxious moments it seems he might bolt from the Anthony d'Offay gallery in central London, where he has been honoured with two solo shows in the past. A compromise is reached: Mueck will continue packing his pieces for shipment to Australia while the photographer snaps away.
Mask II, a new version of the first, glowering Mask self-portrait, will also be making the journey. Making its debut here is the tiny swaddled baby lying on a white plinth on the floor, its head resting on a pillow. The baby, inspired by photos of eastern European infants tightly wrapped in brown blankets and tied with string like little parcels, is part of a body of work created during Mueck's two-year term as artist-in-residence at London's National Gallery.
Other new sculptures include a striking 2.7m tall pregnant woman, eyes downcast, arms crossed above her head and stomach protruding to almost grotesque proportions; a naked man in a salvaged scout's boat, and a small crouching boy in a pair of shorts looking at a mirror. It is a tiny replica of Mueck's gigantic 4.5m Boy sculpture for London's Millennium Dome, which took eight painstaking months to execute and involved intricate work such as individually sanding the acrylic fibre hair to a tapered end for eyebrows and eyelashes. The shorts on both boys were made by Mueck's wife, Cas, a film screenwriter and former costume designer.
His National Gallery brief was to produce sculptures that were "in some way inspired by or connected to the collection". "I didn't want to do anything specific to a particular painting but the mother-and-child theme was one that was widely covered," explains Mueck, who is the father of two teenage daughters. The most graphic rendering of this is his newborn baby nestling, umbilical chord still attached, on its startled mother's stomach.
He has been rather grandly compared with masters such as Vermeer and Hilliard and, according to Newsweek critic Peter Plagens, Mueck can be credited with "redefining realism [by getting] verisimilitude, variation of scale and some kind of psychological insight into realistic sculpture".
"Oh, they can say what they like; it's very flattering and ridiculous," the former Jim Henson puppeteer demurs, giving an embarrassed laugh. "I'm not trying to tell anybody anything. I'm just surprised that a lump of fibreglass can elicit an emotional response."
He's not without detractors, of course, who dismiss him as a "one-hit wonder" and "model maker" in the tradition of Madame Tussaud. And he's not the only sculptor to specialise in super-realism – there's George Segal, John de Andrea and Duane Hanson, whose life-size American tourist figures are often confused with the real thing.
But as Mueck concedes: "A lot of those other sculptors deal less with the emotional side than the physical and, somehow, I don't know why, I do a bit of both." It's the vulnerability of his figures combined with the technical brilliance that elicits such a strong response.
Although he says his figures merely "evolve during sculpting" and it "seems like a fluke when I get it right", Mueck's empathy with the battling human spirit probably owes much to his fairly lonely, self-contained childhood in Melbourne. "I was really self-conscious as a teenager, I wanted to be invisible," he once said.
The son of toymakers – his father made wood carvings and his mother built a cottage industry making rag dolls – he started producing his own Sesame Street-inspired puppets from an early age. After failing to get into art school, he worked as a Myer window-dresser for three years before joining children's television show Shirl's Neighbourhood, where he made and operated puppet animals as a virtual one-man, self-taught band.
Mueck moved to London 20 years ago to work for the Henson empire, first as part of the Sesame Street and Muppet Show puppeteer team, then on the fantasy films Dreamchild and Labyrinth. He established a lucrative career making models for advertisements before influential art collector Charles Saatchi saw a Pinocchio figure he'd sculpted for his mother-in-law, renowned British painter Paula Rego, and promptly commissioned him to make four pieces – one of which was Dead Dad.
"I didn't try to get out of advertising – Charles Saatchi lured me out of it," says Mueck, disclaiming any ambition to become a serious sculptor. "I enjoyed advertising but I used to make things as an antidote to the 2-D advertising models."
Now firmly established, albeit reluctantly, as a YBA (young British artist) with his works featured in museums, national galleries and private collections around the world, Mueck is surprisingly nervous about exhibiting for the first time in his homeland. "I don't even want to think about it," he shudders of his first visit in five years. "I feel like I'm entering another world entirely – I don't know the Australian art scene."
If he'd stayed in Australia, he's not sure he would have been exhibiting on quite the same scale – his Dome Boy featured as the centrepiece at the 2001 Venice Biennale – but believes he would have been sculpting, whether it was "children's toys or garden gnomes".
"I don't know why I'm doing it but I don't know what else I'd be doing," says Mueck. "I'm not driven by art, it's just all I can do."
Ron Mueck Sculpture, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, ends March 2, 2003.