Mueck’s A Girl (2006)

Ever since Ron Mueck exhibited in the 1997 exhibition Sensation! - becoming one himself - his super-realistic sculptures have entranced the public while generating awe among poets and indigestion among critics. Jonathan Jones of The Guardian (UK) wrote: "I felt a wave of nausea when I walked into Ron Mueck's exhibition...The sickness I felt was at the prospect of having to waste time, and words, on this flimsy gimcrack charade, on having to walk around with a straight face and pretend this is an exhibition. Of art." He went on to accuse Mueck's admirers of having little understanding of our subject. "That's the bedrock of my dislike of Mueck: his work is brainless. It...provides the head with nothing at all....Art happens in our minds: we see; the mind makes sense of what it sees - or, with art, can't quite make sense of it - and the gap between perception and prior experience is where originality, newness, comes into existence....Any work of art that rests its claim to attention solely on "gut feeling" is a bully."1 So is Jones. Blind too. Another critic, Alan Searle, wrote: ‘there is something unrelentingly kitsch and sentimental about everything he [Mueck] does.’2 On the other hand and this is telling, poets admire him. Ben Wilkinson has remarked on "the power of Mueck’s work...[and] the ideas, emotions and thoughts that Mueck’s art stirs within."3 Likewise Kate Noakes, a Welsh bard, noted that "some [of Mueck's sculptures] are tender and amusing, some shocking, some unnerving. All are beautifully observed."4 Wilkinson, Christina MacCallum and others have even written poems about them.5 Why would Mueck's pieces leave poets in bliss and critics in stitches?

For a start Mueck's works are not so simple as Jones suggests. It's a question of what you can see. Take A Girl, a larger-than-life representation of a new-born infant, what Jones colorfully called "a bloody, wrinkled colossus of a brand new person."6 What can we see in the baby that Jones can't?

Here's a suggestion. Throw out the dishwater first then study the baby. Start from scratch. Abandon narrative; think art instead.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Ron Mueck, A Girl (2006) Acrylic on polyester resin and fibreglass. 110.5 x 134.5 x 501 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

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The infant, though seemingly unidentifiable like all newborns, actually resembles the artist's self-portrait (right). They share the same frown; the same rings under the eyes adjusted to seem like new-born flesh; and the same nostrils and tip to the nose, both flattened for the same reason. Even the lips with downward creases at each edge intentionally resemble an infantile re-creation of the artist's as does the inverted U-shaped form under the lower lip and the straight line of the chin.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Mueck's A Girl (2006)     
R: Mueck, Mask, detail of a self-portrait (1997) Acrylic on polyester resin and fibreglass. 8' tall. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill.

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Babies, of course, do not actually frown but artists do in their self portraits. It is a long-standing tradition, a sign of deep thought and of a turn inwards. See the self-portraits at left by Rembrandt, Giorgione, Dürer and Mantegna (clockwise from top left).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Rembrandt's Self-portrait as a Beggar Seated on a Bank (1630) Etching on paper.
Top R: Detail of Holler's engraved 1650 copy after Giorgione's Self-portrait as David (c. 1505-10)
Bottom L: Detail of Mantegna's Self-portrait (1474) Fresco. Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua
Bottom R: Detail of Dürer's Self-portrait (c. 1491)

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Further, as I explain under Insight-Outsight , artists from the fifteenth century on have used an open and closed eye to signify the two forms of artistic vision, exterior and interior. It is not coincidence that Mueck's alter ego as a baby has one eye closed. Mueck knows this little-known symbolism, first revealed as a continuing tradition on this site.

What else can be discerned? The artist-as-a-newborn-girl suggests that his male mind has been re-born as the pure mind of the Artistic Self, a divine one and androgynous too. It follows that the artist's mind has conceived a child-as-himself and then created it with his own hands. This comes as close to God-like as a secular sculptor can be today. As artist he is God the Creator and the Virgin Mary combined; as artwork his mind is represented by the infant Christ as a girl, a truly modern take on art's traditional symbolism.{7}

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Captions for image(s) above:

Ron Mueck, A Girl (2006)

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The process of creating art is not easy either which is why it is so often figured as a creative struggle [see Theme.] This child-artist has clearly been through one even if all looks natural. Her hair is still wet from the long struggle through the birth canal with visible smears of blood (like the paint he applies) and an eye seemingly battered in like a boxer's. Even the frown accentuates the artist's psychic struggle.

Poets may have sensed some of Mueck's themes which they themselves probably deal in daily; the critics, on the other hand, who call this remarkable object "brainless" fail to see that she is, in fact, all brain. I have no idea whether Mueck will ever be a truly important artist. But whether he is an artist or not is a no-brainer.

Captions for image(s) above:

Ron Mueck, A Girl (2006)

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More Works by Mueck

Notes:

1. Jonathan Jones, "If you like this, you need to get out more", The Guardian, 9th Aug. 2006, Section G2, p.22 

2. Adrian Searle, “Ron Mueck,” The Guardian (online), Wed. March 26, 2003 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2003/mar/26/artsfeatures (retrieved July 24th 2013)

3. Ben Wilkinson, "Ron Mueck" (online), Deconstructive Wasteland, 18th. Feb. 2008 at http://deconstructivewasteland.blogspot.it/2008/02/ron-mueck.html (retrieved July 24th 2013)

4. "Ron Mueck at the Cartier Foundation" (4th May 2013) at http://boomslangpoetry.blogspot.it/2013/05/ron-mueck-at-cartier-foundation.html (retrieved July 24th 2013)

5. See above, n.3; Christina MacCallom, "Confluence (Before Ron Mueck Sculptures)", Verandah 25, 2010, pp. 90-1.

6. See above, n.1

7. For those new to the site or not fully familiar with it, there has been a long tradition in art (first revealed here) in which the artist imagines himself as the Virgin Mary principally because she had an Immaculate Conception. The image in an artist's mind is a conception too, in all Romance languages, so that a masterpiece like Michelangelo's Vatican Pietà (1499) can be thought of as Michelangelo's own Immaculate Conception. See entry. The equally traditional link between God-as-Creator and the artist is better known though the full scale of an artist's actual identification with God, a pervasive characteristic in the work of major artists from the Middle Ages onwards, has only been shown here. See the many examples under the theme Divine Artist.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 23 Jul 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.