Mueck at the Warhol

April 8, 2008

One of life’s revenges is that when someone becomes truly famous and successful, their memorials are usually put in their hometowns. Arguably it’s a desire to escape from the limiting environment of formative years that drives many successful people to differentiate themselves from their past, and strive towards reinventing who they are. That’s why I always feel a little bad for Warhol. He spent his entire career trying to distance himself from his Polish brethren in Pittsburgh, desiring to become synonymous with New York, the jet set, and celebrity… Then after he dies, they banish his museum to the homeland of Pittsburgh not New York, but Pittsburgh has great museums (thanks to both Carnegie and probably Warhol).

Last weekend I attended Ron Mueck’s show at the Warhol before its closing on March 30th, 2008 (December 12, 2007- March 30, 2008). The exhibition included seven pieces of the artist’s skewed realistic human sculptures, complete with ingrown hairs, goose bumps, and blotchy wrinkles. Mueck came to prominence through his inclusion in Charles Saatchi’s controversial 1997 show Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, alongside Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, with it’s sharks in formaldehyde, and Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept with 1963-1995. The sentimentality and human neediness of Mueck’s work contrasts starkly with most YBA work.

Ron Mueck crafts hyperrealisic sculptures of humans in gigantic or miniature scale. This exhibition featured his work interspersed with the permanent display of Warhol’s work at the museum. Two pieces consisted of gigantic sculpted faces and were titled Mask II and Mask III. It was unnerving to glimpse into the backside of these disembodied heads where the fiberglass shell that supported the polymer work was accessible. Smooth surfaced on the inside, one observed the construction like from inside an immense doll head. It’s immediately telling that Mueck’s background was in model making for the film industry and that he worked under Jim Henson most notably on the 1986 Labyrinth, with it’s plasticized fantasy pseudo realism.

What I found interesting at the exhibition was the crowd and the group dynamics of those attending the show. It was great people watching, and I was told it was the most visited exhibition in the history of the museum. Across town, the Bodies exhibit of plasticized cadavers was on display and I couldn’t help but draw connections and wonder if the two exhibitions shared an audience. Certainly Mueck’s work was enthralling in that it was an artificially created work by an artist. The fluctuation in scale seemed to offer visitors an invitation to examine the work in ways they may not have if the work was on a realistic human scale. Visitors peered in tight at pores, blemishes, genitals, and hair – all things that they may have visually avoided had it been real people or sculptures that appeared to mimic human scale. Zeroing in on the sagging, pasty, doughiness of bodies, crowds of people mulled around the oversized nude bodies. With Wild Man, an immense nude male figure sitting on a chair, it was entertaining to stand back and watch the viewers observe the work. Almost without exception, people approached the sculpture walking counterclockwise, taking in the mass of the man’s hairy wild-eyed countenance. Intent yet courteous, each at first veered away from the sculpture’s fully exposed silicone-crafted flaccid penis (complete with real hair), only after ambling completely around the sculpture, did young and old alike gravitate in to study the detail of wild man’s crotch. Something about the scale and the tactileness of the materials invited the viewer to disregard public propriety and voyeuristically explore the physicality of these human objects.

Perhaps the most intriguing attribute of these sculptures was the wetness or moisture present on the human body, but exploded in scale, that invited this hyper examination. I’m speaking here of lips and eyes and general body wetness, which was most apparent in Mueck’s A Girl, which was an enormous sculpture of a newborn baby. This sculpture was complete with newly severed umbilical cord, bruised, bloodied, and wrinkled flesh. This was the first sculpture encountered in the main galleries, and was also the only one to carry an audience warning by the local press. I believe this exhibition brought a new audience to the Warhol who traditionally may have had little interaction with museums. In fact, many of the galleries featuring works solely by Warhol or others were empty during my visit, while Mueck’s spaces were jam-packed. The atmosphere was very similar to what I would imagine from Victorians taking in the sights at something like Philadelphia’s Mutter museum with its medical specimens and human oddities on display for the viewer. Craft and pseudoscience were on display in the form of technologically sophisticated sculpture. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a line at the admissions desk at this museum. Interestingly, the only sculpture by Mueck to not depict white-flesh was Mask III, which depicted a giant-sized face of a black woman. This sculpture was on display, not in the main gallery space of the museum, but in the entrance lobby.


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