MICHAEL H. PRICE: Amazing Colossal Sculptures
Last week’s dispatch from this quarter drew some parallels between cartooning and Fine Artsy facial studies, as provoked by an exhibition called The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso, at the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. A companion opener at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has less of an academic mouthful of a title – Ron Mueck, plain and simple – but digs comparably deep into the function of portraiture during Times of Anxiety (which is to say, all times) by concentrating upon the assembled work of one present-day artist. Namely, Ron Mueck, Muppeteer-turned-monumental sculptor.
So I’ll be expecting my Hearty Handshake any day now from the Greater (than what?) Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, on account of doing my bit for provincial tourism and the hometown’s arts-and-farces scene. These exhibitions, of course, are anything but provinciable.
Mueck will require little introduction, although some of his now-cryptic, now-blatant clay-into-silicone signature-pieces are more widely recognized than his name. The Untitled (Seated Woman), a smaller-than-real piece of unnervingly lifelike resonance, has been an object of worldwide fascination since its début in 2002 as a fixture of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Send this one out on institutional loan or place it in temporary storage, and the North Texas enthusiasts will mount a massed protest. Mueck’s namesake exhibit has previously graced the Brooklyn Museum and the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa. It will remain on view at Fort Worth’s Modern through Oct. 21.
I find that Mueck’s works, though engaging if approached cold and without preamble, make a great deal more sense when regarded in a pop-literary context – all due respect to the stodgier curatorial realm. The tinier human figures might leave the absorbed viewer feeling a great deal like Mr. Swift’s Lem Gulliver, awakening to find himself confronted with motionless Lilliputians. Mueck’s larger-than-life figures reduce the observer, conversely, to the state of the awestruck expeditioners of 1933’s King Kong, edging warily past a fallen Stegosaurus. Mueck sums up his approach with a simple manifesto: “Life-size is ordinary.” Which recalls this echo from Old Hollywood:
“It’s not big enough!” raged the filmmaking artist Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973), on so many occasions that his Hollywood crews learned to anticipate his demands – by thinking in unreal proportions and translating such impressions to the movie screen.
How big? Well, that 1933 accept-no-substitutes original Kong is Cooper’s chief surviving brainchild.
Cooper has many creative descendants, as well. And from the Whole Cloth of one big-thinking motion picture, about a titanic ape’s indignant response to an intrusion from normal-sized humanity, the variously gifted heirs of Cooper have crafted immense accomplishments around the adventurous, challenging and often unsettling notion that – putting it into practice long before Ron Mueck could find the words – “life-size is ordinary.”
Merian Cooper’s legatées need not confine themselves to motion pictures, of course. Popular fiction, including the comics, has long since nailed a grasp of gigantism and miniaturization – and how better to explain Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man? Or Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man/Giant-Man dichotomy? Or the Superman yarns’ Titano the Super-Ape or that Ozarka-bottleful of shrunken Kryptoonians? Not to mention Ron Mueck.
Mueck seems to be channeling and modifying the cinematic soul of Cooper, thinking by turns in massive and miniaturized terms. Anyhow, a visit to the exhibition can leave one with the impression of having stumbled into a freeze-frame of some special-effects fantasy film. The imaginative thrall is that persuasive.
The aforementioned Untitled (Seated Woman) depicts a tiny woman of advanced age, clothed in attire too drably genuine to be dismissed as doll-costuming. So lifelike is she in every detail that some museum-goers will stand staring for minutes at a stretch, as if anticipating some sign of respiration.
Seated Woman triggers the same popular-response vibe that a second-generation protégé of Merian Cooper’s company, the sculptural animator Ray Harryhausen, struck when he began testing and inverting the bigger-is-better rule – as early as 1957. With a movie assignment called 20 Million Miles to Earth, Harryhausen challenged himself to come up with a creature sufficiently huge and expressive to give King Kong pause. But first, Harryhausen made the beast small enough to occupy a laboratory-specimen cage, none too happy to be there and all too ready to start swelling to outlandish proportions.
Harryhausen found a more telling variation on that chord in a cowboys-and-dinosaurs escapade called The Valley of Gwangi (1969). The truer show-stopper there is a diminutive prehistoric horse, introduced as a prelude to the more extravagant thrills. Those who have seen that meticulously crafted horse, on display apart from the movie itself, speak of it with the same hushed wonder that one hears from admirers of Ron Mueck’s Seated Woman.
So influential is the Cooper legacy than even some less gifted successors – the low-budget filmmaker Bert I. “Mr. B.I.G.” Gordon, for example – have thrived on the practice of confronting everyday reality with gigantic and/or miniaturized presences.
Gordon’s cheaply constructed trilogy of The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast (1957–58) would be preposterous to contemplate if not for his instinctive ability (unconvincing camera-trickery aside) to personalize his monstrosities on a pained emotional level. Colossal Man, in particular, suggests such an unsettling study of a tormented soul – the condition can only prove fatal – that one loses sight of the shortcomings in the special-effects department. (Between Colossal Man and Colossal Beast, Gordon delivered a miniaturized-humans movie called Attack of the Puppet People. This one is a takeoff on a 1940 picture called Dr. Cyclops, from Cooper’s colleague Ernest B. Schoedsack. Small world, indeed.)
Ron Mueck no doubt owes less than I might be suggesting, here, to the screen-thrills influence – which as a linchpin of the popular culture is nonetheless impossible to ignore and decidedly essential to a sharper understanding of the exhibition. The artist is a thoroughgoing original who has absorbed the historic influences of Monumental Sculpture and cinematic fantasy and shaped them into a body of work whose individual pieces (like Merian Cooper’s put-upon Kong and Bert I. Gordon’s maddened Colossal Man) connect with the observer on what feels like a personal level.
It scarcely comes as a surprise to learn that Mueck, 49, spent his childhood as an amateur toymaker and began working in earnest as a puppet-builder for such television programs as Sesame Street and The Muppets Show. His current endeavors take the human form to a remarkable state of heightened realism, picturing individuals who look as though they might spring to unhealthy life at any second.
Better motionless. Big Man, the chief attention-getter in the museum display, is a sullen colossus, “barefooted all over” (as Stymie Beard might put it), and slumped in a state of perpetual disgust. Where the celebrated Seated Woman seems lost in a reverie, Big Man appears determined to convey his unhappiness to anyone who walks past: The illusion of eye-contact is jarring beyond all good sense.
By an opposing token, Mueck’s Wild Man seems the object of some ghastly ritual of torture, if not a psychotic episode. He, too, sits naked and vulnerable though larger-than-life, frozen in time and space and yet galvanized by some unimaginable terror.
The effect is as startling as it is fascinating. Australian-born and London-based, Mueck has tapped in the realm of the Finer Arts that same impulse that has enthralled and haunted humankind, with its appetite for extremes, since prehistory. That obsession with size spills over relentlessly into the inseparable vessels of Art and Commerce.
Mueck’s mastery stems from an understanding that, no matter how huge or how small, a figure must engage its observer on a level of intimate communion. Mission accomplished, and then some.
Co-writer of the Prowler and Fishhead graphic-novel projects, Michael H. Price is co-author, with the late George E. Turner, of Spawn of Skull Island: The Making of King Kong, from Baltimore-based Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.