His was a world of props and animatronics, an imaginary land of fantasy and make-believe rooted in a childhood in which the family business was toy making and puppetry, and cemented by a 20-year career creating hyperrealistic sculptures for television, film and advertising.
Ron Mueck's early professional successes included designing puppets for an Australian children's television show, creating models and puppets for Labyrinth (he also voiced Ludo), and setting up his own shop in London. Not content with the "pretty on the camera side, but ugly on the hidden side" pieces that he constructed for commercials, he longed to create sculptures that were perfect from all angles.
His next incarnation as a fine artist really took off when he debuted a hyperrealistic sculpture titled Dead Dad, showing the lifeless, supine and nude body of his father at two-thirds scale. Crafted from silicone, mixed media and even the artist's own hair, the piece was both eerie and haunting but also riveting.
Mueck has gone on to produce figures both large and small, clothed and nude, including a piece titled Boy that was five meters in height.
A traveling exhibit of his works has made stops in Paris and Latin America and, for the upcoming show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, we'll see a different version consisting of about a third of Mueck's total oeuvre.
"We knew that 13 [pieces] was all the galleries could show, and we knew what was available," says Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH's Isabel Brown Wilson Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. "It's a combination of famous works and works not seen in this part of the world before." She says they waited for the Paris show to close, as well as another iteration in Finland, and borrowed from collections in the United States, Europe and Asia.
The pieces are incredibly lifelike, though never to scale, and illustrate humanity's journey from cradle to grave. Greene borrows a page from Shakespeare to describe the appeal. "From mewling infant to old age, it's a common fascination. What unites us all is the fact that we have mortal frames, and one of the things they often say is what makes us human is an awareness of our mortality."
Viewers will gravitate toward and connect with different pieces, depending on their stage in life. Greene says that, not only do Mueck's characters range in age from infancy to death, but he also captures moments in between. "When an infant is born, a woman becomes a mother, a man becomes a father. These transformations resonate far beyond that of a single figure.
"There's a bit of a surprise in the exhibition, the still life, the image of the large dead chicken," says Greene. "We eat chicken all the time and we don't think about what happens. I think we'll see in the show this much larger-than-life chicken hanging down. It's a sacrificial image that, for some people – especially if you were raised in a Christian household – it might remind you of a crucifixion."
The oldest pieces in the Houston exhibit are Crouching Boy in Mirror (1999-2002) and Untitled (Seated Woman) from 1999. We'll also view three newer pieces created in 2013: Couple under an Umbrella, Young Couple and Woman with Shopping.
MFAH also will be screening a 2013 film by Gautier Deblonde, commissioned in Paris, titled Still Life: Ron Mueck at Work. The documentary shows Mueck in his studio and captures some of the pieces as they come to life.
"Ron Mueck" runs February 26 through August 13 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, open Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sundays 12:15 to 7 p.m., 713-639-7300, mfah.org. Free to $18.