Review: My brother Esau is an hairy man but I am a smooth man
My brother Esau is an hairy man but I am a smooth man
Ron Mueck 22 Jan - 18 Apr 2010
The curator of the Ron Mueck retrospective at the NGV referred to the narrative qualities of the work. By this I take him to mean that we are drawn into a scene that the people depicted in the work inhabit and infer their state of mind from their facial expressions and body language, by reference to our own. While this is undoubtedly true, the more immediate response from this reviewer and his viewing companion, when confronted with the hobbit-like hirsute feet and legs of Wild Man was to do a comparison with our own body hair. Like the biblical Esau, my friend is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man. Although this is perhaps a less profound narrative with the works, I think it demonstrates the level of verisimilitude achieved by Mueck that one makes almost instant comparisons between his work and real people, as if one were looking at a medical journal and wanting to establish whether you fell within the range of “normal”. This sort of detached examination is much easier with some of the oversized works than it is with the smaller works, such as Dead Dad and this is perhaps a response to the microscope-like perspective they afford. It is as if we are scientists objectively examining a subject.
Once one gets past the feet with Wild Man though, the distressed face and tensed body evoke a very powerful emotional response. There are many possible scenarios. Has this man been brought in from the wild for examination and put on a hard stool for the first time? Is he afraid of us and our intense stares, like a wild animal trapped by humans would be? Is he in fact “wild” in the sense of being insane? Is he staring at phantoms of his mind? Why is he naked? The heavily bearded face and intense expression are also suggestive of renaissance paintings, it could almost be the type of preparatory sketch which was done for such “true” narrative paintings where the subjects were depicted nude in order to get the musculature right, before clothing them in the final work. So there is a multitude of responses possible ranging from the physical and emotional through to the more analytical and art historical.
There are exceptions to this statement though; the oversized newborn baby A Girl carries an obvious emotional punch, perhaps especially for parents. Perhaps when children are first born they almost seem that big to their parents because of the amazing nature of birth and disbelief at the space they have recently been confined to. It makes it all the more strange that film and television almost never realistically depict birth, given the impact of this work. For me the feeling was one of empathy for the face about to scream in outrage. The large Mask II, a facewhich seems to have been scalped from the skull also seems uncomfortably like the work of a psychopath.
The small scale of Dead Dad, along with the knowledge that it does in fact depict Mueck’s naked dead father, make it a much more difficult work to view dispassionately. Personally I felt it was a very pathetic image and it seemed quite shameful to stare at the work for too long. I know that other people do not have the same response to the work, but I think that their response would be equally emotional, which seems to be partially to do with the scale. The small size, coupled with the vulnerability of being naked and dead, creates a much more empathetic response. The effect is similar with Untitled (Old Woman in Bed), even without the back story. The scale of the work and the type of blanket used paradoxically make the old woman seem baby-like in her defencelessness.
This is not the case with the clothed small works, however, Two Women, for instance just seems like a couple of very well rendered models ready for the animation set. (This was where Mueck got his start.) The small works with an obvious allegorical aspect also seem more doll like, (even though they are doubtlessly rendered with the same skill), because they have clearly been manipulated into unnatural poses and they lose their universality.
The exception again, for me, was Man in Boat. The boat is full sized and the man sitting in it is less than full sized, but not quite doll-like. There are clearly allegorical elements to be found in this work, but it doesn’t seem so ham fisted as the smaller works and also strikes a balance between evoking empathy and allowing considerations of art history and biblical references.
On the whole the work is open to a range of interpretation and should lead to introspection on why the individual works create such a range of responses.