The Easel

The kitsch we need

It’s a baby lying on the floor. The eyes and squishy forehead are particularly impressive. There’s a gooey-ness and rawness to the flesh that is particular to newborn babies. I happen to like knobby knees and this baby’s knees are nice and knobby. The new skin on baby knees looks  like it could also be old skin. It is startling, the way that tiny infants can resemble elderly people. There is a shared vulnerability to bodies just coming into the world and bodies soon to make their way back out again.

Ron Mueck, A Girl, 2006. Installation view from Ron Mueck’s solo show at the Fondation Cartier, Paris, 2023. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Purchased by Art Fund support, 2007. © Marc Domage

The sculpture, A Girl, is also quite large. Much larger than an adult human being. The scale is affecting, though it is hard to put one’s finger on exactly why. Maybe it’s that the giant size actually increases the viewer’s experience of fragility. Everything that makes a newborn baby new is magnified.

Artist Ron Mueck created A Girl  in 2006, and it was shown in a major retrospective of the artist at the Fondation Cartier in Paris last year. It is an interesting counterpoint to the sculpture that first brought Ron Mueck to international fame and recognition. That sculpture is titled Dead Dad.

Ron Mueck, Dead Dad (1996-7)

Dead Dad was part of the celebrated (and reviled) Sensation art exhibit that premiered at London’s Royal Academy of Art in 1997 and then traveled to The Brooklyn Museum in New York City, where Rudy Guliani made the show even more of a sensation by calling it “sick stuff” and threatening to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum. Guliani was especially incensed by a Chris Ofili painting titled The Holy Virgin Mary, created partly with elephant dung and festooned with shots of womens’ nether parts clipped out of pornographic magazines. The Sensation show also featured challenging works by a number of the so-called YBAs, Young British Artists like Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and Sarah Lucas.

Ron Mueck was not a member of the YBAs. He was, in fact, a bit of an outlier to the whole Sensation show, since he did not come to fine art through the usual channels. He didn’t go to Goldsmith’s College like Damien Hirst or other YBAs. Born in Melbourne, Australia, he was not even British. If he had a mentor in art, it was probably Jim Henson of Muppets fame. Mueck worked on the film Labyrinth with Henson, fabricating and voicing the horned beast named Ludo. That’s to say, Mueck was a puppet and dollmaker, a trade that he inherited. He was born to parents who were puppeteers and dollmakers. Mueck was simply carrying on the family business.

But Mueck married into the Rego/Willing family and thus gained a mother-in-law, Paula Rego, who happened to be a famous Portuguese/British artist. Rego appreciated Mueck’s skill and asked him to make a puppet Pinocchio for a show she was doing. The art dealer and impresario Charles Saatchi (the collector behind the Sensation show) saw the puppet in Rego’s studio, purchased it, and not long afterward Dead Dad ended up in Sensation.

Sharks in giant vats of formaldehyde, rotting cow heads, and portraits of child murderers notwithstanding, Dead Dad by Ron Mueck was in many ways the stand-out piece of the Sensation exhibit. It seemed to stick in many viewers’ minds long after the shock and awe of the other pieces in the show had worn off. Mueck had suddenly become an “Important Contemporary Artist.” Mueck has worked consistently, though slowly (his sculptures can take years to complete) since then to produce fine art sculptures for galleries and museums all over the world. He has, during that time, further perfected his techniques for creating extremely realistic sculptures of human beings, down to the little skin blemishes, odd hairs, moles, and wrinkles that are found on actual bodies. He is a master of clay, silicone, polyester, fiberglass and other materials, using them to create the shape and look and feel of real humans.

Call this hyperrealism, then – many people do. Ron Mueck himself is said to dislike the moniker, although he generally keeps quiet about his art and leaves the interpretation to others. Mueck is not the first person to do hyperrealist sculptures. The artist Duane Hanson began using fiberglass and vinyl to make hyperrealist sculptures of humans in the mid 1960s.

Duane Hanson, Supermarket Shopper (1970)

Like Mueck, Hanson wanted to make sculptures that captured the everyday person exactly as they look. Warts and all, as they say. Though it should also be said that Hanson’s sculptures tend to have more of a Pop sensibility than Mueck’s sculptures, which are often nudes, and which are harder to pin down in their relation to popular culture. Still, the similarities are easy to see, especially in the use of materials that approximate genuine human flesh.

Hanson’s realist tendencies did not emerge in a vacuum. He started making his sculptures at just about the same time photorealism was emerging in painting. Robert Bechtle, for instance, was creating realistic, from-the-photo paintings of suburban American life in the late 1960s that look like they could have served as models for some of the figures that show up in Hanson sculptures.

Robert Bechtle, 61 Pontiac (1968-9)

There was, in short, a movement of photo or hyperrealism in painting and sculpture that had existed for more than thirty years before Ron Mueck came on the scene. That tradition has continued. You may, for instance, also have come across the work of John De Andrea, who often works in painted bronze.

John De Andrea, Mother and Child (2015)

Or the bathing sculptures of Carole Feuerman.

Carole Feuerman, Mona Lisa (2014)

In general, hyperrealism has been popular with the museum and gallery-going public. But as with photorealism, there has been push back against hyperrealist sculpture from many critics. Hilton Kramer, then the art critic for the New York Times, said of photorealism, “The photorealist painter is a glorified camera, slavishly reproducing reality without offering any insight or interpretation.” Similar comments have been, and continue to be, applied to hyperrealist sculpture. Here’s Janet Koplos, art critic and former editor of Art in America: “Hyperrealist sculptures are more akin to waxworks than fine art. They prioritize unsettling realism over genuine artistic expression.”

I suspect some of this criticism has to do with how hard it has been to convince the general public that abstraction and non-representationalism in art is fully legitimate. Recently, I was at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach Florida. I was lingering, as I am wont to do, in the area where the Abstract Expressionist paintings are hung. Quite a few Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan paintings festooned the walls. The comments to be heard in the room were along the standard “my grandkid could do that” line. Which, one must admit, is understandable. If you haven’t spent a good deal of time contemplating the dead ends, crises, radical turns, and experimentations in painting since the mid 19th century, there is no particular reason to be moved by what looks to you like a bunch of random paint blotches on the wall. How to get the museum-going public to spend a little more time contemplating such difficult-to-access art when there’s an intriguing “waxwork” by Hanson or Feuerman or Mueck right there in the next room?

Jonathan Jones, the art critic for The Guardian, spoke for many critics when he wrote about Ron Mueck way back in 2006:

[H]is work is brainless. It insists on the gut and provides the head with nothing at all. This won’t work. Art happens in our minds: we see, the mind makes sense of what it sees – or, with art, can’t quite make sense of it – and the gap between perception and prior experience is where originality, newness, comes into existence. Art is cognitive before it is ‘emotional’.

I’m not interested in debating the specifics here. Art may or may not be cognitive before it is emotional. I don’t know. The point is that Jones is expressing a widely shared (by critics, curators, and art world people) nervousness about the art of Ron Mueck, a feeling that the work might be just a bit too stupid to be taken seriously as real art and that Mueck is essentially a contemporary Madame Tussaud, fine for a stall in an amusement park but not fine enough for a fine art museum. As another critic at The Guardian put it (this time Adrian Searle), “The giant pregnant woman, the alarmingly small woman who has just given birth, the little, naked, middle-aged man adrift in the prow of a real wooden boat, the swaddled baby whose sweeeeet little head pokes out of the blankets, are all such grim, sculpted images. There is something unrelentingly kitsch and sentimental about everything he does….”

I think the key word in the previous quote is “sentimental.” That is more or less what Jonathan Jones also meant when he called Mueck’s work “brainless,” aimed at the gut rather than the head.

Ron Mueck, Pregnant Woman (2002)

One can see what Jones and Searle mean with the aforementioned “giant pregnant woman.” The sculpture is 2.5 meters (over 8 feet) tall. There is indeed a “grimness” to it and something that might as well be called sentimental. And indeed, the word ‘sentimental’ is meant generally as an insult. Something is sentimental when it pushes so far into our feelings and emotions that it overdoes it. That’s what Jonathan Jones was getting at when he wrote that Mueck’s art, “insists on the gut,” or when Searle described the sentimentality of Mueck’s sculptures as being “unrelentingly kitsch.”

According to Mueuck —and, again, Mueck does not spend a lot of time explaining or defending his art —he made Pregnant Woman as a response to other representations of mothers and children at the National Gallery in London. One supposes that Mueck is talking about the various Madonna and Child pictures that can be found at the museum, like, for instance, a painting by Botticelli entitled The Virgin and Child with Saint John and an Angel.

Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin and Child with Saint John and an Angel (c. 1490)

Like most medieval, renaissance, and early modern paintings that deal with Mary and the Christ child, this painting does not show the actual pregnancy of Mary. It shows us Christ as an infant. It is somewhat unusual (though by no means unprecedented) in that we are shown the Christ child nursing, with the nipple of Mary clearly visible (this detail had been covered up by a previous owner of the painting and was only revealed in a later restoration). At the same time, it would be hard to describe this painting as an exploration of the physical act of nursing. Nursing, here, is symbolic. We see the nipple of Mary as a sign of her humanity and therefore the humanity of the Christ child. Yet Mary’s ethereal and otherworldly gaze seems to concern itself with matters far removed from the actual act of nursing a child.

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find an image of a mother pregnant with a child anywhere in the National Gallery collection. I suppose we could say that Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait is also, and secondarily, the portrait of a pregnant woman. Experts seem to be divided on this matter and it is certainly debatable.

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

I for one do think the woman is pregnant. It’s the way she rests her left hand at the top of her belly that seems to seal the deal. But one can’t be completely sure. And that is precisely the point. Pregnancy, in the entire history of Western representational art, is a subject matter that is rarely portrayed overtly, unless one counts the prehistoric, so-called fertility figurines like the Venus of Willendorf.

Venus of Willendorf (c. 25,000 BP)

But even this image may not be one of pregnancy as such and, well, it was made close to 30,000 years ago. Nobody knows, or can ever know, anything definitive about the what and why of this small sculpture. Sticking to the last thousand years or so, the rule in Western art is basically that pregnancy can and should only be referenced subtly and with much discretion. It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve much into the reasons for this tacit agreement. Many of the reasons are, no doubt, obvious. As Karen Hearn, who curated a touring show called Portraying Pregnancy a few years ago rather succinctly put it, “[t]he problem with pregnancy is that it defines a sexually active woman, and throughout history, that has always been a problem.” When it comes to Mary, the possibility of sexual activity is a pretty big problem indeed, since she is importantly understood to be a virgin. But don’t the Gospel stories mention something about Jesus having siblings? How did they come to be? The theological quandaries abound and shall not be resolved here.

It is thus only in very recent history that we’ve seen anything like the stark and straightforward depiction of a pregnant woman that we get, for instance, in this Alice Neel portrait from 1971.

Alice Neel, Pregnant Woman (1971)

Or, a couple of decades later, this Chantal Joffe portrait.

Chantal Joffe, Self-Portrait Pregnant II (c. 2004)

Joffe was once asked what she found interesting, from a painterly perspective, about painting the pregnant body. She said, “There is something so extreme about what pregnancy does to the body; the lavish curves, the crazy depth of the bump as it arcs out from the body. It’s like a journey someone is going on where you can’t follow them.” This seems obvious, once it is spoken aloud. The human pregnant body is fundamentally and viscerally interesting. It is visually arresting. And the visual interest is heightened by the fact that something rather significant is happening here. A person is in the process of coming to be out of another person. We do not have to fetishize this event in order still to acknowledge that it is quite remarkable. One would think that such astounding, carnal, sensual happenings as pregnancy and birth would be prime fodder for artistic reflection of all kinds.

And that is what Ron Mueck seems to be saying with his Pregnant Woman. The fact that Mueck makes his depiction so large, so stark, and so obviously reflective of the physical labors (pun intended) of pregnancy is therefore also a statement about what Western art has, historically, failed to do and what is therefore interesting to do now.

Adrian Searle, for his part, does acknowledge this fact. He writes, “There are lots of pregnant women and babies in old paintings (yes, and oddly they are usually called Mary and baby Jesus), so Mueck makes them new, in living 3-D. This will not do. The display, I note, is hugely popular.”

But in fact, there is an interesting error in this quote. As we’ve noted, there are not “lots of pregnant women” in old paintings. There are hardly any. And when they do appear, the pregnancy tends to be covered up in many layers of clothing and with little, if any, reference or portrayal of the actual physical condition of being pregnant. So, Ron Mueck is actually exploring a subject matter for art that has been strikingly neglected hitherto.

That’s probably also the most intriguing and aesthetically valuable aspect of Mueck’s infant sculpture, A Girl, with which we began this essay. Infants are also not especially well-represented in the history of Western art. Okay, I can already hear the objections. I am aware that there are literally thousands of pictures of the infant Jesus in museums around the world, as well as many non-religious portraits that include babies and children. But those pictures are not studies in infancy as such. They are studies of the infancy of Jesus, or of the importance of this or that family, which is an entirely different matter. Even when the humanity and vulnerability of Jesus as a tiny baby are being emphasized, there is a great deal of symbolic and theological heavy-lifting going on. A Girl is, by contrast, and as the anonymous title already intimates, just a girl. That’s it. Huge, and somewhat uncanny because of the size, but still nothing more and nothing less than an infant fresh from the womb, perhaps the very womb of Pregnant Woman. That sheer presence seems quite enough, in the estimation of Ron Mueck, for the viewer to have a significant aesthetic experience.

Whether this is true is, of course, an entirely different question. Here, Jones and Searle may be right. Perhaps A Girl and Pregnant Woman and all the other sculptures are just a bunch of tasteless kitsch. There is, to be sure and by contrast, something undeniably artful in the way that Alice Neel and Chantal Joffe painted their portraits. Are the specific choices of line and color and brushstroke evident in Neel and Joffe’s paintings and which Janet Koplos described as “genuine artistic expression” lacking in the sculptures of Ron Mueck? In some sense I think we have to say yes. Mueck’s approach to making sculptures more or less precludes the possibility of that kind of expression.

But it is also far from clear that this elusive and hard-to-define quality of “genuine artistic expression” is the sine qua non separating art from non-art. What is clear is that Ron Mueck, with Pregnant Woman, is showing us a pregnant woman in a different way than she is being shown to us by Neel or Joffe. If this is art, and not just kitsch, then it is art that operates on a different register and with a different set of rules. Art like this creates an aesthetic experience precisely by removing so much of what we often think of as artistic expression. It is willing to get so close to direct realism as to risk getting lost in it. But not quite. That sliver of difference between an actual pregnant woman and Pregnant Woman or between an actual baby and A Girl must bear a heavy load. Mueck is playing a dangerous game. He hasn’t left himself much room for art to happen.

Still, if art does happen in Pregnant Woman, it is because Ron Mueck has presented the physical reality of pregnancy, the astounding and mysterious fact of what it means to have one’s body transformed in that way. This is something Western art has not wanted to do, has not allowed space for, in most of its history. But you do have to allow space for Pregnant Woman. Its pure presence, its size, its uncanny-valley-undeniability demands it. This accomplishment alone I find hard to dismiss, share as I might the doubts and worries about what makes something art, and whether Mueck has crossed that threshold. And to make a weak and extremely subjective point in closing, the more I reflect on it, the more I am glad that Pregnant Woman exists. I wouldn’t want it not to exist. I wouldn’t want to subtract it from the things in the world in the name of “protecting” art. If it is kitsch, then it is kitsch that, for me, exists in a category I’m tempted to call “vital kitsch,” the kind of kitsch we sometimes need. Or maybe, just maybe, there isn’t all that much difference between vital kitsch and what we’ve always called art anyway.