Ron Mueck’s extraordinary hyperrealist sculptures are seen almost as rarely in public as the notoriously reclusive artist himself. But the sculptor has emerged from his small North London studio to return to Paris’ Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain for his first major European exhibition in seven years.
Alongside some of his seminal works, including ‘Mask II’, a gargantuan sleeping face, three new pieces are on show at his second survey at the Fondation. ‘Couple Under An Umbrella’ depicts an elderly couple on the beach and takes pride of place in the airy glass foyer of the Jean Nouvel-designed building. It is probably the most striking of the sculptures due to its sheer scale. Meanwhile, 'Young Couple', shows a teenage pair in a tense embrace and ‘Woman With Shopping’ captures a mother carrying her baby and groceries - a banal yet poignant image inspired by a scene Mueck saw on the street.
'The reading of each sculpture is really open,' says associate curator Grazia Quaroni. 'It is a suggestion of the artist and each of us will react to it a different way.’
The coupling of subjects marks a significant departure in the artist’s oeuvre, which has only ever featured solitary figures. Curiously, this unexpected deviation towards partnerships is reflected in an intimate documentary produced by photographer Gautier Deblonde exclusively for the exhibition. Shot daily in Mueck’s studio, ‘Still Life: Ron Mueck at Work’ reveals unprecedented insight into the artist’s creative process as he prepared for the show in Paris.
Each sculpture begins as a rough sketch in pencil, followed by wax or clay maquettes. From there, Mueck precisely sculpts the form he intends to cast (without props, clothes and hair) and then continues to mold his subjects, a fascinating process in which they vanish beneath layers of plaster, rubber and shellac.
Once freed from the mold, Mueck adds the final painstaking details: sanding, painting, carving wrinkles, applying facial blemishes such as moles, weaving in each strand of body hair (nostril hair included) and finally dressing the sculpture with handmade clothes or found props.
Mueck, who barely utters a single word in the 52-minute film, only betrays his impenetrable perfectionist mettle with a curse of frustration when the molding of a Perspex eyeball goes awry. It is this same unpredictable vulnerability that seems to reveal itself in his sculptures and however banal the subject matter, his work remains compelling. ‘It’s always like that with Ron Mueck,' adds Quaroni. 'We like the fact that he is so figurative, but that it goes in another direction to figuration. He is unique in his way of treating sculpture.’