For those who have longed for a contemporary counterpart to the likes of Vermeer, Rembrandt or Dürer, one appears to have arrived in the form of artist Ron Mueck. Punching the realism of the aforementioned artists into the third dimension, his four piece exhibition at the Hauser and Wirth gallery on Savile Row will have many breathing a sigh of intellectual relief.
This is a show which allows viewers to leave behind contemporary art theory, existential discourse, philosophically layered meaning and so on, and in its stead puts on a display of raw artisan skill. The sculptures on show breathe verisimilitude with an uncomplicated intention. Mueck simply asks his viewer to consider flesh, hair, cloth, blood, moisture.
Mueck is known for his manipulation of belief through his nuanced treatment of scale. When viewing his hyper-realistic sculpted figures, one is never allowed to see them as actual organisms, merely because they are slightly or dramatically too small or too big. One is therefore in constant awareness of their artificiality, despite the fact that they are executed in a painstakingly realistic manner.
Instead, you are made to regard Mueck’s figures as you might an ecclesiastical statuette encased in a glass case in the home of the devout, or a procession statue made in the likeness of a saint, worshipped by masses in ceremonial reverence. Mueck’s pieces do not call for adoration, however, even if they are imbued with the same tactile detail which has historically been applied to such religious sculpture. Instead, these works depict the everyday, un-special character. The teenage boy, the middle-aged man, the chubby woman, the plucked chicken.
The meaning behind the rendition of the subjects is held on the surface, blaring for everyone to consider. Yet, this does not make Mueck’s message any less worthy than that of his artistic peers. The first piece in the show is entitled Drift, and depicts in a slightly diminished scale a male figure on a plastic lilo with arms outstretched. Being hung vertically against a cerulean blue wall, there is an obvious allusion to crucifixion iconography. Its uncanny spiritual aura means that the viewer is filled with an overwhelming urge to stroke its bleached leg-hair and to touch its tinted skin.
The next room contains two pieces, Woman with Sticks, and Still Life. In the former, apart from its absurd beauty, and its evocation of folklore, is a stunning articulation of linearity. The arched curve of the female’s back against the tilted line of the cluster of branches presents a wonderful compositional balance.
The second piece in the room is perhaps the most thematically jarring work in the show, yet it is in no way any less sense-provoking. A human-sized suspended chicken corpse, bereft of its feathers, hangs with a seemingly peaceful expression, whilst the intense realism of the execution leaves your sense of smell wanting. You are expecting the scent of cold, dead poultry flesh. When that expectation is not met, you are left to contemplate every crease, every bump, every gash that your eyes can consume.
The final piece in the exhibition, Youth, is held in its own room, and is deserving of such exclusivity, despite its demure size. Its gestural nod to the canonical image of the Doubting St Thomas is clear, and invites easy contemplation on the subject of the threat of mortality. The detail of the execution is so refined, down to the last elbow crease, that the boy’s humanity is palpable. You can almost hear him breathe in as he lifts his diaphragm to gaze at his open wound.
This exhibition is a stunning display of sculptural ability, and an unoppressive poke at the intellect. It is emotionally accessible to all, it can be understood by all. For this, and much more, it is an exceptional display of a contemporary artist’s work.