Playing with Scale

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Playing with Scale


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


Ron Mueck: Making Sculpture at the National Gallery

National Gallery until 22 June

In 1990, the National Gallery appointed Paula Rego as its first Associate Artist. The idea was to invite an established artist to come and work for a year or two in a basement studio at the gallery, making art that was a direct response to the NG's permanent collections. Since Rego's residency, there have been four other artists: Ken Kiff, Peter Blake, Ana Maria Pacheco and then Ron Mueck, who took up his tenure in August 1999, and now shows the fruit of his subsequent labours, in the Sunley Room, admission free.

Actually, the idea of having a contemporary artist on the spot to liven up all that past achievement is not all that new. In 1980, Maggi Hambling was the first of a whole string of younger Artists-inResidence to be appointed, and among the works she made was a powerful study after Rubens's `Samson and Delilah', and a very popular portrait of one of the gallery's guards. Perhaps some of the following resident artists paid less attention to the treasures of the collection than was hoped, which necessitated re-launching the scheme in 1990 with a new name. Certainly since then the work produced by the Associate Artists has been stimulating to the extent of controversial, and has added different strata of appeal to (and often insight into) the nation's remarkable collection of Old Masters.

Ron Mueck was born in 1958 in Melbourne, Australia, of German emigre parents. The first sculpture by him that I remember seeing was a small Pinocchio in the 1996 Hayward Gallery theme show Spellbound: Art and Film, in which the three-dimensional figure was an effective adjunct to a group of paintings by Paula Rego relating to Disney's films. Rego is Mueck's mother-in-law, and she utilised his exceptional gifts as a special effects model-maker (working mostly in children's TV, motion pictures and advertising) to make a startlingly life-like Pinocchio which threw her own two-dimensional images into sharp relief. The next sighting of Mueck was in the Royal Academy's 1997 Sensation exhibition, in which he exhibited for the first time as an artist in his own right, represented by an almost unbearably poignant and considerably-less-than-lifesize sculpture entitled `Dead Dad'.

Many people regard `Dead Dad' as Mueck's high point - what could he do after that without repeating himself? He is a faultless craftsman, who works in a traditional manner: first making clay studies, then a full-size clay model from which he takes a mould, afterwards using it to cast his figures in fibreglass or silicone. …

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