The real sensation of the Sensation show of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy in 1997 was Ron Mueck. Most of the artists presented statements or concepts. Mueck showed a fact. The fact was an almost perfect plastic model, two-thirds scale, of a naked man lying dead on the floor and called simply Dead Dad. You could see even from a distance that rigor mortis was setting in. Looking more closely to examine just how realistic it was, you found yourself uncomfortably aware of the morbidity of your eye and the intrusion of your presence. That the body, made of silicon, polyurethane and styrene, was not actually life size only made its nakedness more glaring and your gaze more gruesome.
Since then Mueck, a puppet-maker by first trade from a family of toy creators, has gone on to make ever bigger and more sophisticated models of a woman about to give birth, of a mother with child, an elderly couple embracing, a hairy Wild Man and his own face as a mask. Many of them were made on a gigantic scale. Realism was rescaled, the mythical made human and real. It's an extraordinary body of work. Painfully slow in the making and technically challenging, it is easy to dismiss it as puppeteering, far harder not to be first shaken and then stirred when actually viewed.
In his more recent work, Mueck seems to have taken a new tack, or rather developed from a straight depiction of humanity in the raw to a broader, more socially conscious stance. That at any rate is the feeling you get from the work on display at his new gallery, Hauser & Wirth, in London, his first important solo showing in the capital over the past decade.
There are only four works in the exhibition, Still Life, a hanging chicken carcass several times larger than life-size, and three single human figures considerably smaller than life: Drift, Youth and Woman with Sticks. In the first room, a lilo pinned to the wall holds a sunbathing man, two-thirds life-size, in dark glasses and colourful swimming shorts. His arms hang wide either side, his skin is glossy with sun oil. The details are exact. The chain around his neck falls to his back. The watch is real. The face is set and vacant. The air of ease, however, is belied by the fact that the figure is hanging vertically that disconcerts the eye but also raises associations of crucifixion. You know what you're seeing, you know it's fake, but it draws you in into a solitary regard.
In the next room, a naked woman of uncertain age and some girth struggles to lift a large bundle of sticks clutched in her arms. They are life-sized, she is not, so the strain of body and bulk is all the more intense. Again, the details are exact, the scratches on her arms and body from the rough wood, the eyes squinting in the turned head, the falling hair and the folding layers of the fatty skin. A metaphor for life, the burdens of women, the biblical task of man?
Across the room is the plucked chicken, a good four times life-size, hanging by its feet, its naked wings outstretched, its body disembowelled. A droplet of water with a trace of blood drips from the beak, the feet are splayed, the claws look immense and threatening. A vision of cruelty and consumption made the more painful by the translucent skin and wings that would fly but cannot. In the final room, a youth in low-hanging jeans and bare feet, about one-third scale, lifts his T-shirt to examine a knife wound in his side. The white shirt is stained with red, the wound is fresh and dripping blood. Yet the boy, figured with grace and innocence, stares down more in puzzlement than shock as if unsure that it has really happened – a portrait of a victim certainly, but an oddly uncomprehending one.
An immense amount of skill and preparation has been put into these works, starting from drawings and maquettes and working up to the final moulds and finishing. With each work, Mueck seems to like to push the technical boundaries further, a drive for perfectionism certainly but also, one feels, the pleasure of a craftsman in testing his skills. With Still Life, he pulled a silicone skin over the structure to give it the particular greasy quality of a plucked bird. With Youth, he sprayed on diluted pigmented silicone to get the right shade and translucence. Drift required a new kind of resin to imitate the look and feel of blown-up rubber.
With all this precision it is tempting to see the works more as objects of skill than art, a sort of 3D photograph. That would be wrong. Art history has long had a tradition of exacting realism in the still lives of the Dutch artists and the baroque figures of the wounded Christ and tortured saints of Spain. Realism intrigues the eye and brings its own emotional force. Hyper-realism increases the effect as does the variation in scale.
The gallery believe that these figures, from 2008 and 2009, are inspired by religious iconography. And it is certainly true that the two years Mueck spent as sculptor in residence at the National Gallery in 2000-1 manifestly influenced his art. You can see Rembrandt and Goya in the Still Life just as it is possible to view the Youth as a doubting Thomas and the drifting sunbather as an image of self-indulgent consumerism aping the Depositions in the National Gallery.
Whether these amount to religious feelings is another question. The giant chicken inspires awe and a certain humility in the face of such stark animal cruelty but its very size also keeps you at a distance from engagement. With the smaller, human figures, however, he arouses more empathy. In them he is saying something about our place in society as well as in the natural order. It may be to a degree obvious but it does represent a development of Mueck's imaginative range. He's an artist one wants to follow as he works out what "facts" to present you next.
Ron Mueck, Hauser & Wirth, London W1 (020 287 2300) to 26 May
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