Rarely do I feel the need – as some commentators recently did when rounding like sharks in a tank on Damien Hirst – to stoop so low as to suggest that something might not be classified as art on my say so alone. Indeed, that's not the case with Australian Ron Mueck's first solo show with heavyweight commercial outfit Hauser & Wirth. Hell, it's in a smart gallery, the pieces all have smart titles attached (no doubt with prices that will smart too) and I'm writing about it, which alone makes it art.
I would, however, go so far as to claim that these four works (all from 2008-09) by Mueck – 'Drift', 'Still Life', 'Woman with Sticks' and 'Youth' – are entirely art-less. For all their lifelike qualities – the suggestion of sweat on a neck, the visible veins or textures on skin – they lack the transcendent spark that transforms a dead-eyed replica into an object able to translate reality in any meaningful way. Their refusal to be anything other than what they resemble makes them feel more like forgeries: cunning fakes of the real things but no more.
Trained in Jim Henson's superlative stable of puppeteers and model makers on movies such as 'Labyrinth', Mueck clearly can spin gold from the dullest of threads and turn water into wine on occasion. No one who saw his three-quarters-size 'Dead Dad' in 'Sensation', Charles Saatchi's landmark exhibition in 1997, will ever forget it, perhaps wondering why it might be that our parents seem to shrink in their dotage, while doubting that anyone could ever lay so still or seem so naked and alone.
That heartbreaking jump in scale is attempted again here in an enlarged, human-sized plucked chicken hanging from the ceiling, which only induced in me a faint lycanthropy (I came over all wolfish) and conjured up a refrain in my head: 'My, giant chicken, what big thighs you have'. Sure, it has plaintive little wings and an air of gruesome despondency, but these are just special effects.
'Woman with Sticks' is sledgehammer-subtle in its supposed depiction of the hardships of the feminine lot in life: she's bent over backwards by the weight of the large bundle of twigs she carries in her arms and to which she couldn't possibly add another. Except that there's also no way she could walk or see where she's going with such a cumbersome load, and she's almost comically rotund (in a Hobbity rather than Rubensesque manner), rendering this sculpture less about burden than about burlesque.
The preposterous 'Youth' inspecting his own stab wound in the manner of the doubting Saint Thomas is joined in its cod-Christian iconography by the centrepiece of a crucified man laying on a lilo, halfway up a wall painted pool-blue. 'Drift' riffs on the kind of hyperrealist polychrome statuary of Jesus that makes even confirmed atheists like me well up with emotion; only this relaxed-looking dude in his Bermudas has no cross to bear and hasn't bled for our sins. There's no eye contact either, as he's wearing sunglasses, so I can't feel anything for him, except for one urgent wish: that Hirst's shark would rear up out of the back wall and swallow him whole.