Untouchables

Working in bronze, one of the oldest sculptural media, Peter Simon Mühlhäußer has created Girls: a contemporary series of female figures that explores sexuality, ethnicity, identity, male gaze and voyeurism. These six, exquisitely rendered, nearly-life sized figures are so unapologetically--even brashly--charged with provocative possibilities, that their presence becomes an unavoidable confrontation with multiple disquieting readings, and ultimately with ourselves.

Mühlhäußer’s is a specific and dangerous art. The sculptures’ lushness is visually aggressive, their existence an accusation. Abigail, an African-American girl with hypnotically intricate hair, juts her chest and jaw out at us, perched upon a pile of coal bricks. Theresa is enigmatically suspended from cords, exhibiting a bizarre combination of references both to classical sculpture and sexual bondage. These sculptures are not passively aware of their viewers; they engage with them unflinchingly. Nor do they allow us a static involvement: we are compelled to move around them to fully appreciate their ample details, elegant passages of hair and skin folds, and the endless sculptural landscapes that comprise each body.

Mühlhäußer’s creating such explicit figuration, exercising virtuosity in a world that often considers it irrelevant, choosing controversial subjects and imagery, and treating the completed bronzes with unorthodox finishes are all variables whose downsides could result in harsh failure. It would be easy to understate the risks involved by combining this many uncertainties; consequently, it is impossible to overstate the achievement in pulling it off.

Not the least of these factors is the self-imposed method by which Mühlhäußer sculpts his figures: by hand, almost exclusively out of his head, modeling and posing them in actual size without the use of a maquette. This is a highly idiosyncratic and difficult method by which to realize a sculpture that approximates a credible human being. The refuge of the lesser-skilled is to utilize body casts or digitally scan figures and mechanically realize a form. Making a realistic figure with his own hands immediately sifts Mühlhäußer into a much smaller pool of artists, which shrinks even further if we exclude those who rely on photographs and models.

The Girls, and their creator Peter Simon Mühlhäußer, will undoubtedly come under considerable and warranted scrutiny. Viewers will have to decide for themselves: is this merely a cynical effort to shock or dazzle us with a beguiling surface that remains as conceptually vacant as the hollow bronze from which it’s made? Or is the void of easily grasped meaning a chamber within which our own projections echo? Any discomfort that provokes the need to analyze the work or artist is also a call to examine the roots of such unease. “Rather than dictate a narrative, these complicated objects present choices,” notes sculptor Mark Mennin in his introduction to Mühlhäußer’s 2012 catalog.

In that same catalog, the artist includes a cherished quote from Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is the passing on of the fire, not the worship of the ashes.” Like Mahler, Mühlhäußer carries that fire forward, but also plays with it at risk of being burned. In creating the Girls, he has exploited one of figuration’s greatest assets--accessibility--to disarm and even mesmerize us while he flirts with figuration’s greatest weaknesses--kitsch and pornography.

Stephen Shaheen
New York, 2013

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