A middle-aged woman carries a huge bundle of rough, scratchy-looking twigs clasped close to her naked body. Every detail -- her toenails, her hair, the red striations on her skin caused by the twigs -- is so convincing that you could almost think she was alive.
Except that she isn’t realistic at all because she’s less than half the size of a normal human being. This is “Woman with Sticks” (2008), one of four pieces in a show of new work by the sculptor Ron Mueck at Hauser & Wirth London, 23 Savile Row (through May 26, prices start at 500,000 pounds or $807,100).
Four sculptures might not sound like many, but Mueck is the reverse of prolific. This is billed, correctly, as his first major exhibition in London for almost a decade. According to the catalogue raisonne that accompanies the show, during those 10 years he has produced about 16 works, of which the quartet presented here is the most recent.
Mueck, born in 1958, is the reclusive exception in the generation of U.K. artists who shot to prominence in the 1990s. For one thing, he isn’t British. He was born in Melbourne, Australia. In contrast to artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, who see a celebrity personality as part of the modern artist’s role, Mueck is reluctant to give an interview.
Stanley the Snake
Also, he wasn’t aware he was an artist until well into his career, which he began as a model-maker for Australian children’s television, constructing such puppets as the Garden Gnome, Ol’ Possum and Stanley the Snake.
He then moved to Britain and continued model-making until in 1996 he came to the attention of Charles Saatchi, who declared Mueck a contemporary artist and commissioned new works from him.
Mueck’s “Dead Dad” (1996-97) was the sensation of the 1997 “Sensation” exhibition of Saatchi’s collection at the Royal Academy (and subsequently in New York). It was a representation -- at once mesmerizingly naturalistic and surreally small -- of an elderly male corpse.
Since then Mueck has produced a sequence of works with those characteristics: stunning verisimilitude, disorienting shifts of scale.
The new pieces include “Youth” (2009), a 2-foot statue of a young black man, fashionably dressed in jeans that droop to reveal his underwear. He lifts his T-shirt to gaze in blank astonishment at his chest, where a fresh wound between his ribs oozes blood.
“Drift” (2009) is a middle-aged man lying spread-eagled on a plastic float in the middle of a huge blue wall, clad only in a pair of floral swimming trunks and dark glasses. The naturalism extends to the glistening sweat on his tanning skin. He is just 46 1/2 inches high.
Only “Still Life” (2009) approaches ordinary human dimensions, but this is a sculpture of a plucked and eviscerated chicken, hung up by its feet, every nuance of translucent yellow fat and mottled flesh lovingly reproduced.
This is Mueck as we know him -- except that there is an almost subliminal thread of symbolism running through the show.
“Youth” has been stabbed just as Christ was on the cross; the man on his sun bed lies arms outstretched as if crucified; so too does the chicken, only like St. Peter upside down. “Woman With Sticks” could be carrying material for her martyrdom by fire.
Hirst, too, has toyed with pious imagery. Is this what happens to YBAs when they grow middle-aged? Do they get religion?
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s Muse highlights include: Rich Jaroslovsky on Kindle; Jason Harper on the Ford Taurus SHO.