Man in a Boat , 2002. Mixed media. Photo: Courtesy Anthony D’Offay,London

The Progress of Big Man: A Conversation with Ron Mueck

Australian-born, London-based Ron Mueck is as enigmatic as his sculptures. From a distended baby, stuck to the wall crucifixion-style and bearing an unnervingly intelligent demeanor far beyond his age, to a smaller-than-life, sick old woman, who curls up in a fetal pose under a blanket, Mueck’s works command an uncanny ability to amaze with obsessive surface detail and intense psychic discharge. Engaging and wildly popular, they expose our need to validate our humanity, even as they thwart our attempts at full disclosure.

Mueck first gained international attention with Dead Man, a naked, half-scale impression of his father shown in “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” (1997) at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. With no formal art training, he perfected his skills in the commercial world of special effects, model-making, and animatronics. In 1996, he presciently created for his mother-in-law, well-known British painter Paula Rego, a figure of Pinocchio, the quintessential embodiment of truth and lies. Saatchi saw this sculpture, and smitten, began acquiring Mueck’s work.

Man in a Boat (detail), 2002. Mixed media. Photo: Courtesy Anthony D’Offay, London.

Since then, he has been making silicon or fiberglass and acrylic sculptures cast from clay models. A solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, in 2002, featured the museum’s own Untitled (Big Man). More recently, exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sidney and at the National Gallery in London included work conceived during Mueck’s two-year residency as Associate Artist at the National Gallery. One of the sculptures, Pregnant Woman, an eight-foot-high Ur-mother with arms crossed overhead, feet squarely planted, and a downward glance, was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, for $461,300, the highest price paid at the time for art by a living Australian.

To get bogged down in a debate over naturalism, realism, and illusionism when trying to sort out the hows and whys of Mueck’s oeuvre is to miss the point. More interesting is a discussion of his standing in the history of figuration. A certain freshness and sincerity of vision distinguish him from the blasé irony of many of his contemporaries who also explore strategies of realism. Above all, Mueck is a master at orchestrating tensions that both attract and estrange. His figures invite close-up inspection of blemishes, hairs, veins, and expression, taking you on a psycho-topographical journey. If you stare long and deeply enough, you experience a horrific beauty. Yet the very same verisimilitude creates a weird distance that is as equally penetrating of our current existential state.

In this interview, Mueck explains the genesis of Untitled (Big Man) and offers an explanation of his technique—a bold adaptation of traditional conventions in defiance of computer-assisted design. Part intuitive, part willed, his multi-staged process involves a series of experiments and discoveries. Far from a servile copyist of nature, he reveals the need of making selective adjustments to maximize the physical and emotional aura of his figures. In the end, Mueck’s success hinges on faith and control. Through mastery of his materials in a seamless, seemingly effortless way, he awakens our willingness to believe in images that our imagination keeps alive.

Untitled (Big Man), 2000. View of the work in progress. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.

Sarah Tanguy: How and when did you get the idea of manipulating scale with your figures?

Ron Mueck: I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day.

Untitled (Big Man), 2000. View of the work in progress. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.
Untitled (Big Man), 2000. View of the work in progress. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.
Untitled (Big Man), 2000. View of the work in progress. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.
Untitled (Big Man), 2000. View of the work in progress. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.
Untitled (Big Man), 2000. View of the work in progress. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.

ST: So you alter scale to raise the emotional and psychological impact?

RM: It makes you take notice in a way that you wouldn’t do with something that’s just normal.

Untitled (Big Man), 2000. Detail. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 81 x 46.25 x 82.25 in.

ST: With Big Man, did you know right from the start that you wanted it to be super-scale?

RM: He didn’t actually start big at all. I had sculpted another piece—a small figure of a man wrapped in blankets. I didn’t use any reference or life model with him. He’s sculpted completely from imagination. At the time, I had just started an artist residency at the National Gallery, and they were doing a life drawing class with the public. I joined in and did my first life drawing in one of these classes, which I quite enjoyed. Coming back into the studio and looking at the sculpture, I thought, “How would it be different if I did exactly the same thing but working from life?” I don’t normally work with live models—I use photographs or references from books, take my own photographs or look into the mirror.

I tried to find a live model who matched the little guy wrapped in the blankets. I located one who was physically similar, got him into the studio for three hours, and found that he couldn’t actually curl up like that. His limbs weren’t flexible enough. His belly was in the way. It meant that he couldn’t achieve the pose. I was also not used to having a model in the studio. I found it quite intimidating, because there’s another person demanding to be related to. And this guy was naked and completely shaven. He didn’t have a single hair on his body. He was quite disturbing. I thought, “Right, what am I going to do with this naked man?” I asked him to sit in the corner while I figured this out. He suggested some poses that he might be able to strike for me, and he took on all these ridiculous classical poses that live models like. They were so phony and unnatural, and I realized there was nothing at all I could do with him. As I was summoning the courage to ask him to leave early, I glanced over at him in the corner waiting for me to make my mind up. He wasn’t quite as belligerent as the sculpture ended up, but he was in that position. And I thought, “That looks good.” So that’s how I came about the pose.

I did a clay study, about a foot high, of him in that pose. At that point, I thought perhaps that might be the final size of the sculpture. After I got a little way into sculpting this foot-high version with him there, he left. I didn’t actually get him in again because I had all the information I needed without any further input from him. I then carried on playing with the sculpture a bit. In the process, I took photographs of what I was doing, as I often do, because I find that if I photograph the work I can see it with a fresh eye. You can do the same looking in a mirror. If you look in a mirror, you see all the imperfections and asymmetrical things that you just can’t see otherwise because you’ve been looking at it too long.

While reviewing the photographs, I sketched a little figure on the photograph with a felt-tip pen — a little person, standing and gazing at the maquette. The scale of what I had sketched made the figure about eight feet high. It was kind of intuitive. I had doodled this little man because in the photograph you couldn’t tell the size of the figure. With him there, I could see that the sculpture worked as a big thing. He looked like a bull of a creature. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll try it that size.”

Once I decided on the scale I was going to aim for, I snapped some photographs. I took a profile view and squared that up—just drew lines all over it and squared that up onto paper. I then did a drawing of him on brown paper the size that would suit him—seven or eight feet tall. As soon as I sketched that out, I thought it would do. Working with the drawing, I made a chicken wire and plaster armature. Afterwards, I lined up the armature to see if it would fit within the profile of the drawing.

Pregnant Woman, 2002. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 252 cm. high. Installation view with spectator. Photo: Mike Bruce, Courtesy Anthony D’Offay, London

ST: Is the yellowish material the plaster?

RM: I use a very hard dental plaster rather than plaster of Paris, and it does have yellow pigment in it. After I put the plaster on over the chicken wire, I also paint shellac over the plaster, which stops the plaster from sucking the moisture out of the clay. It might be the shellac as well that looks yellowish or brownish.

ST: What do you do after the clay?

RM: I also spray that with shellac, again to seal the clay so it doesn’t dry out when I create the plaster mold. That’s what makes it suddenly look so dark brown. I construct a wooden structure to support the mold and hold it rigid because the mold is a very thin layer of plaster with Hessian scrim. And it’s quite fragile. Then I paint layers of colored polyester resin into the mold. There’s a little bit of fine-tuning. When he came out, the color was a little bit “new-born.” He was very clean and pink. I just weathered him on the surface. I gave him some age spots, veins, and things would have been too hard to figure out in reverse.

ST: One of the traits you already mentioned that both attracts and repels me is his lack of body hair.

RM: The model was a “smoothie” as they call them in the live modeling trade. It was very creepy. I had actually intended to put some hair on the figure, but in the end, the creepiness suited the size. I did think, however, that hairs on those big arms would have been quite nice actually—big, hairy gorilla arms.

Clockwise from left: Untitled (Baby), 2000. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 10.25 x 4.75 x 2.1 in.; Mother and Child, 2001. Pigmented polyester resin on fiberglass, 24 x 89 x 38 cm.; Swaddled Baby, 2002. Mixed media, baby: 51 cm. long; plinth: 107 x 91.5 cm. Photos: Mike Bruce, Courtesy Anthony D’Offay, London.

ST: How long did you work on Big Man?

RM: Four weeks. I had a deadline: a week sculpting, a week molding, a week casting, and a week finishing.

ST: That was fast.

RM: That was too fast.

ST: Is there a difference between when you work with a live model and when you work with a photograph, a found image, or from your imagination?

RM: There’s no denying that I have more information readily at hand when I have a live model. Even when I have had a model, however, what I have to do in the end is to consciously abandon the model and go for what feels right. Otherwise, it becomes an exercise in duplicating something. Sometimes what feels right is not what actually is right. With Big Man, his feet were too large for his body. I ended up distorting the work in order to enhance the feeling of the piece rather than to make it look precisely like a particular person.

ST: Is there a difference for you when the human form is in its entirety or when it’s a fragment, as in your self-portrait Mask?

RM: The only way I could do a fragment was to make it a mask, because a mask is a whole thing in itself. I couldn’t do a decapitated head or half a body. I have to believe in the object as a whole thing. A bronze bust is an entity because, for starters, it’s bronze and it’s not pretending to be anything other than a fragment or a sculpture. But my things are pretending to be something else as well. A mask is complete already. This is just a different kind of mask. It’s a realistic mask.

ST: I’m curious about the relationship you have with your sculptures. Do you see them as human beings, almost? Or more like mannequins?

RM: I don’t think of them as mannequins. On one hand, I try to create a believable presence; and, on the other hand, they have to work as objects. They aren’t living persons, although it’s nice to stand in front of them and be unsure whether they are or not. But ultimately, they’re fiberglass objects that you can pick up and carry. If they succeed as fun things to have in the room, I’m happy. At the same time, I wouldn’t be satisfied if they didn’t have some kind of presence that made you think they’re more than just objects.

Sarah Tanguy is a writer and independent curator based in Washington, DC.