Created in 1998, Man Under Cardigan is an exceptional, hyper-real sculpture by the consummate observer and flawless imitator of life, Ron Mueck. The work is one of the artist's early and pioneering sculptures, exhibited in the artist's first solo exhibition at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery in 1998, just a year after his acclaimed break-through debut at Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy. Barely half the height of an ordinary, seated man, Man Under Cardigan immediately captivates the viewer with its tiny, but perfectly real frame. Rendered with the greatest of devotion, Mueck has attended to every fine detail, blemish and idiosyncrasy of its human form. Soft tufts of dark hair emerge from under each arm and from the chest, running down through the navel and covering the surface of all four limbs. A layer of stubble traces the contours of the face crossing the bow of his lip to the base of his chin. Skin changes its texture from the wrinkled, rosy patches on either knee to the soft, slightly bruised circles under each eye. It is a sculpture that defies belief, the body almost pulsing with circulation and coursing with breath. The eyes are always the final detail that Mueck carries out. For each, he elaborates the layers of the eye, from transparent lens to coloured iris, to dark pupil. In Man Under Cardigan the small man's deep brown, liquid eyes are somehow sentient, glistening in the light and giving true meaning to the old adage: 'the eyes are the window of the soul.'
In creating such a faithful incarnation, Mueck joins the pantheon of 'hyper-real' sculptors such as Charles Ray, Robert Gober and Duane Hanson. What differentiates Mueck from his colleagues however is the depth of spirit that he activates in his art. Whilst others endorse irony in their realist depictions, Mueck's verisimilitude has a unique sincerity, seeking to elicit empathy from his viewers as they encounter emotional portraits of infancy, adolescence, parenthood, aging and death. In Man Under Cardigan, the sculpture speaks perceptively of the sense of vulnerability, isolation and alienation that for some accompanies the duties and demands of adulthood. Attempting to huddle under Mueck's daughter's pale-blue knitted cardigan, with his hollow chest bowed inwards, the man appears defensive, ashamed and self-conscious in his nudity. Indeed with his legs spread akimbo, he is scarcely able to protect his modesty. The expression is solemn, lonely, withdrawn, both eyes gazing out tentatively from beneath his makeshift hood. It is a strikingly different image from the wide-eyed innocence that accompanies the young infant in Big Baby. In this sculpture created in 1996, the young child demonstrates a blissfully nave understanding of his own body, happily seated on his plump, bare bottom. Folding his flushed, chubby hands over his small round toes, his form appears supple; the antithesis of the rigid, stressed adult presented in Man Under Cardigan.
The scale of both works acts to amplify these impressions: the giant baby being bold and curious, confidently encountering the world, whilst the miniature man cowers, retreating from his body, his life and responsibilities. The use of scale as a barometer of emotional life is a motif that Mueck has employed throughout his career. Indeed Mueck's final figures are either routinely amplified or shrunk, but never or rarely life-size. As Susanna Greeves has pointed out, 'small objects have been traditionally associated with the precious and delicate, reserved for careful and private handling. The monumental by contrast has been associated with power and status. Mueck playfully subverts these preconceptions' (H. Bastian 'Ron Mueck - A Redefinition of Realism', (ed.), Ron Mueck, Ostfildern-Ruit 2005).
In Dead Dad (1996), the first of Mueck's hyper-real models to be officially exhibited at Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection in 1997, the artist plays with scale in a tender portrayal of his dead father. In the work, Mueck presents his father as two-thirds of his original height, unclothed, lying supine, his deathly pallor and deeply mortal flesh offered up with barefaced honesty. It is an intensely moving portrait of the man who had such a turbulent relationship with his son. Indeed as the artist once explained: 'I didn't really get on with my father but, as I made the piece, I found myself thinking about him, caring' (Ibid.). Through a combination of his small form and solitude, Dead Dad encourages empathy, tenderness and curiosity, operating as a process of catharsis and self-reflection for both the artist and the viewer.
This is the overwhelming ambition behind all of Ron Mueck's oeuvre. Unlike many of the grand gestures prevalent in contemporary sculpture, Mueck's approach is more subtle, nuanced and fundamentally human. In Man Under Cardigan the small isolated figure offers a quiet dialogue, allowing the viewer access to his innermost thoughts and fears only through the expression wrought on his face and body. Partially covered, he appears to shy away from the limelight, forcing viewers to crouch to witness the look on his face. It is in these moments when we suspend our disbelief and engage with the sculpture up close, that we feel a faint sense of trespass on someone elses private life. It is this sensation that highlights Mueck's brilliance. He does not satisfy himself just with beautifully rendered sculptures of how people look, but the sense of how it feels to be looked at.