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If you come across a hyperrealist sculpture in a contemporary art museum without expecting it, you will spend the next few seconds wondering if it is a real human being or not. Coming to an exhibition of hyperrealist art makes for a slightly different experience, as you expect to admire the technical virtuosity, but also to appraise its level of exactitude. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could reach greater resemblance and yet Ron Mueck’s sculptures – on view at Foundation Cartier for Contemporary Art through September 29, 2013 – are both perfect and understandably ‘imperfect’ at the same time. His technical finish surpasses what his hyperrealist forebears achieved in the 1970s: proportions are impeccable, the mottled coloring of skin is as detailed as can be, and every item pertaining to the sculptures is painstakingly recreated down to the finest follicle, varicose vein, or nibbled nail. You can witness in the exhibition video that each minute detail is a labor of love. Mueck’s process makes his work a fine example of “Slow Art.” He practically licks his sculptures into shape.
So what is it that makes these sculptures only almost human? Perhaps the way the light inevitably betrays texture and substance. You may not even perceive it consciously, but the surface of the trompe l’oeil skin exudes a certain hardness. Perhaps another material could create a more fleshy, softer, life-like intensity, probably not.
Once you get over this piece of technical micro-sleuthing, you are free to appreciate the fact that Mueck’s almost spiritual quest for perfection is not the only feature of his art. Unlike his American predecessors of the ‘70s, Mueck does more than just reproduce figures seen in the street or in a shopping mall. Scale is at the heart of the Mueck experience. It is what makes hyperrealism cross into the land of dream. His figures are either a good deal smaller than real life (frequently about a 3 feet tall) or taller (ranging from two to nineteen feet).
Those familiar with Mueck’s earlier work will be pleased to come across old favorites such as Man in a Boat (2002), which offers the magnetizing, slightly eerie impression that you are floating on the river Styx alone without provisions, on the lookout for the Charon or what comes next.
Entirely new works include Woman with Shopping, Young Couple, and Couple Under an Umbrella. All three are entirely successful in eliciting the viewer’s feelings of tenderness towards them and human beings in general. The outsized elderly couple in Couple Under an Umbrella makes one feel childlike in the presence of these oversized grandparents. As with many of Mueck’s works, love and connectivity are evoked. His figures often seem to look inward towards their feelings and aspirations.
The works exhibited towards the end are for the most part equally satisfying, if at times a little more moot. Despite the crucified Christ posture of the floating figure in Drift, the figure is a little uninspiring compared to the depth exuded by Mueck’s usual work. The other Christ-like figure of an Afro-American teenager entitled Youth is more intriguingly enigmatic. Inspired by Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, it successfully renovates the biblical moment by blending Christ and Thomas into one character staring disbelievingly at his own heart wound. Woman with Sticks depicts a small, happily plump, naked Herculean woman lifting a massive bundle of sticks– suggesting life is a fairytale, despite the human condition.