Anaemic Anatomy in a Chamber of Horrors; Sculptor Ron Mueck Was Expected to Find Inspiration from the Treasures of the National Gallery. Did He?

By Sewell, Brian | The Evening Standard (London, England), April 4, 2003 | Go to article overview

Anaemic Anatomy in a Chamber of Horrors; Sculptor Ron Mueck Was Expected to Find Inspiration from the Treasures of the National Gallery. Did He?


Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

DEAD Dad is deeply disconcerting.

Three-feet long, the hands as broad as the narrow thighs, the penis oddly pink against their grey (and oddly tumescent too), the lifelike little waxwork seems much less a work of art than the consequence of a bizarre and aberrant accident in those sequestered rooms of the funeral parlour where the dead are drained of blood and bodywaste and then cosmeticked into presentability for loving mourners.

Dead Dad was the sensation of Sensation, the exhibition through which, in the autumn of 1997, the Royal Academy saved its financial bacon by borrowing the then upstart collection of Charles Saatchi, and lending it, in turn, all the authority of that august historic body. This exchange was seen by many of us as a Faustian bargain in soul-selling, for by it the stature of the once esteemed Academy seemed as much diminished as Dead Dad.

It was an exhibition of works by artists who attacked the taboos of sex and nudity, wounds and mutilation, squalor and religion, paedophilia and murder with the subtlety of the blunderbuss.

Death, the last taboo, obfuscated by a thousand euphemisms - at rest, peace or repose, departed, taken and gathered to the bosom of the Lord, even, though dead and buried, enjoying eternal life - was the target chosen by Ron Mueck, a sometime puppetmaker for Australian television, and Dead Dad is his father's funerary monument.

It is not a waxwork - at least, not in the sense of being a work in wax, though devotees of Madame Tussaud's (if any there be) must be forgiven for seeing something of the chamber of horrors about it.

It began life (or death) as a clay model from which a cast was made, the materials glass fibre, silicone and acrylic, the lifelike pigmentation diligently added in the process. In the basic elements of this procedure-Mueck is as much a sculptor as Rodin: first the tiny model constructed in pinches of clay attached to an armature (a simple outline skeleton that prevents the soft clay from collapsing, unnecessary in a recumbent figure), then perhaps a larger model in more clay to clarify the detail, and then the finished sculpture to full scale, destroyed when the cast is made.

If not technically a waxwork, it is at first aesthetically indistinguishable from one, for access to which Tweedledee and Tweedledum might say, as they did of themselves: "If you think we're waxworks, you ought to pay, you know.

Waxworks weren't made to be looked at for nothing. Nohow!"

And at Sensation we had indeed paid to look at Dead Dad, and when the new Saatchi Gallery opens on the South Bank, we shall pay again.

For the moment, however, we may, in the National Gallery, look at Mueck's latest works for nothing - again not waxworks, but with the same disturbing something of their character.

Over the last three years Mueck has been associate artist there, his task or purpose to be both himself, that is an artist pursuing the normal course of his development and, in whatever sense occurs (subliminal or deliberate), an artist reflecting or responding to the paradoxical privilege of being able to work in a studio at close quarters with a wide range of ancestral European paintings.

If we substitute the term associate sculptor for associate artist, the paradox becomes even more pointed, for we ask of Mueck that he should respond in three dimensions to inspiration derived from the two of a flat surface and an image that is an illusion.

In this we reverse the not uncommon course of the painter's derivation from the sculptor - and how many of us can readily point to sculptors' derivations from painters, apart from Anthony Caro's foolish student exercise conceits when he preceded Mueck in the National Gallery? Consider Donatello, Bernini, Canova, Rodin, Moore - when did they succumb to a painter's influence?

The authors of the National Gallery's catalogue of Mueck's four works in three years illustrate Holbein's Dead Christ and Jan van Eyck's Adam and Eve, but as these are in Basel and Ghent, not Trafalgar Square, Mueck might just as well have worked from picture books as set up shop in the Gallery. …

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