VISUAL ART: Dressed like Dandies in the Clothes of Precision

Article excerpt

Ron Mueck Cartier Foundation


I suppose it's every portraitist's aim to reproduce his subject exactly, exactitude being a sliding thing like happiness and love. Ron Mueck, true to form, has taken this tendency to its literal extreme. Wild Man, one of five new Mueck sculptures, sits in the Cartier Foundation's glass cube dressed in precision and nothing else. Every hair on his legs, every blotch on his back, the wrinkles of his foreskin " all are revealed to the bobo crowd that haunts the Cartier's galleries. Sans complaisance whispers one overawed Prada- wearer, faced with Wild Man's gnarled prpuce: no kindness here. And she is right.

But as in all hyper-realist work " as in all art " there's a trick to Mueck's exactness. Not only is this a warts-and-all portrait, it is also roughly twice-life-size. Its flaws (and, potentially, the beauty and everything else about it) are doubly magnified, blown up for our double inspection. And yet the more information we're given, the less Wild Man tells us. The over- arching questions " why is he looking to his right as though in horror? Is this a self-portrait? Why has Mueck made it? " remain unanswered. Information here is less revealing than numbing, a series of red herrings. As a style of portraiture, Rembrandt's brown mist is infinitely more precise.

This is particularly true of the work's scale. Blowing portraits up does two things to them. On the one hand, it allows us to examine their blemishes and wrinkles with a scientific eye; on the other, it lards them with expectations. On the whole, large-scale sculpture tends to do large-scale things: hold the torch of liberty aloft in New York harbour, say, or sneer in cold command in the Egyptian desert. Applying the politics of bigness to little subjects " a sideways glance, the pensive touch of a woman's forefinger on her cheek " does odd things to our eyes. In In Bed, Mueck's portrait of his wife under a titanic duvet, those eyes simply will not take in what they see: a fleeting, intimate gesture reproduced in a sculpture six metres by four. You look at her finger and yet you can not quite accept it, as though you've suddenly gone blind; although the blindness is conceptual, not optical. …