Ron Mueck: 25 Years of Sculpture; The Gaze review – size isn’t everything

Thaddaeus Ropac; TJ Boulting, London
Tiny woman beats giant skull in the inscrutably hyperreal sculptures of Ron Mueck. And Moroni’s handsome tailor inspires a look at the male gaze

Dead Dad – naked, ashen and piteously half-sized – looks more poignant than ever after quarter of a century. Ron Mueck’s most famous figure lies on its slab like a body in the morgue, dead and yet so lately alive. Time has deepened its pallor, and given it a new significance – this poor bare forked animal might now be another victim of Covid.

Twenty-five years of sculpture doesn’t amount to very many at Thaddaeus Ropac. Mueck’s punctiliously super-real beings take an age to make, from their liver spots and silver stubble to the downy hair on forearm or cheek, and there are only nine works in this selected survey. But they vary in scale from the tiny Man in Blankets – a big bruiser reduced to the size of a newborn, curled in pink swaddling as if trying to return to the womb – to the gigantic skull titled Dead Weight. Every stage of life lies in between.

Youth, 2009/11.
Youth, 2009/11 by Ron Mueck. Photograph: © Ron Mueck/ courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery

Some figures have been shown before. The black teenager incredulously touching the knife wound in his side, like a contemporary doubting Thomas. The woman lying on her back immediately after birth, staring at the strange infant on her chest, fists clenched as if stricken or dumbfounded. The elderly couple in their fading swimwear, sheltering from the sun beneath an outsize umbrella.

This is an art of narrative and whole-hearted emotion. You are not supposed to be baffled by these obvious staging posts in our common existence. Humanity is Mueck’s entire theme, as openly declared as his special effects are inscrutable. You can look into these faces and wonder how on earth he gets that red-rimmed exhaustion into a woman’s eyes, or that blankness in a boy’s dazed expression, while at the same time absolutely receiving and sharing those feelings.

The illusions remain immaculate. Mueck started out as a model-maker, and the accompanying photographs by Gautier Deblonde show the artist working on a miniature maquette or perfecting the discolouration of a colossal toenail with a diminutive paintbrush. There are anatomical toys, books of yoga positions and try-out models. You see the emergence of Woman With Shopping, from grey fibreglass and painted polyurethane to the finished figure in the gallery.

Sentinel-still, in her Dr Martens and old overcoat, she holds two carrier bags filled with baby wipes and teabags and a (not quite to scale) bottle of cheap sauvignon. The baby buttoned inside her coat, against the cold, stares up at its exhausted mother, searching for her absent gaze. Yet there is a snag: the woman is herself no bigger than a little child. The pull towards sentiment is too overt and strenuous.

And the latest works here turn out, for all their size, to be the least of this show. A big head glowers back at you from the shadows of a black chamber. It’s a confrontation. Or it would be if the eyes were not deliberately oblique beneath the overhanging brows. Dark Place is the too-obvious title of a work fit for spectres and Halloween.

The prodigious skull, cast in iron, weighs in at over a ton. No matter what it is intended to represent, it looks like what it is: a muckle lump of dark metal. Without the advantage of Mueck’s spectacular hyperreal art, this 2021 sculpture is no more than a particularly large feat of old-fashioned casting. It may be bigger than an elephant’s skull, yet it has almost no impact at all.

The Tailor, 1570 by Moroni.
‘Steady intent’: The Tailor, c1570 by Moroni. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Giovanni Moroni painted his tremendous portrait The Tailor around 1570. The tailor looks up from his work with steady intent, shears in hand, about to cut the cloth. We see him and he sees us: the exchange is startlingly mutual. It has captivated viewers for centuries, and now inspires the writer and curator Louis Wise to put on a contemporary art show, The Gaze, in response.

He has photographs, drawings and paintings: a come-hither Moroni, a teasing thumb in the mouth Moroni, a masturbating Moroni. That is to say, in these images men are looking back at you with something of the same electrifying gaze. A few are not looking at you but each other, as in the American artist Gilbert Lewis’s tantalising painting of one young man looking through a doorway at another. Some simply resemble Moroni’s darkly handsome tailor. It is in both respects a show of looks.

All of these men are gay. Wise believes, quite plausibly, that Moroni was himself homosexual. Art history absolutely resists such guesses, where there is no documentary evidence. But I can see why. It is not just Wise’s own personal response to the picture, deep as this obviously is (and who hasn’t fallen for a person in a portrait: these are living beings, very often depicted at their beautiful best). It is also that the tailor is so unusual, almost the only one of Moroni’s sitters who is not an aristocrat, intellectual or courtier. The look he gives the artist is piercingly intense. Why did Moroni paint him – was it love?

Star ratings (out of five)
Ron Mueck
The Gaze

  • The Gaze is at TJ Boulting, London, until 20 November


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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