Last winter, my mother and I went to the Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles to see a sculpture by Ron Mueck.
Mueck is a practitioner of hyperrealism, which means that he creates statues that look alarmingly lifelike. Staring at a Mueck, you are overcome by the sensation that if you were to reach out your hand, the statue’s skin would be soft and warm and its hair would feel human-like running through your fingers (and, in fact, sometimes it is). The clothes have a real thread count. But underneath the clothes, the hair and the skin, the statues are made of clay.
Take Mueck’s “Seated Woman,” for example. Every time I see the statue, I am paralyzed by how it looks a little bit like every old woman I knew growing up, except that it is only 2 feet tall. The statue is a woman in the miniature, with perfect strands of gray hair, which look like they were pin-curled just a day or two before. The eyebrows are filled in with a pencil slightly darker than the statue’s hair color. The statue wears a pastel pink shirt under a black cardigan, a string of pearls, a gray skirt, stockings, and snakeskin shoes with a slight heel.
She looks every bit like someone my grandmother would have known. More than that, she looks like someone my grandmother would have liked. Someone down to earth. Someone who had lived through a little too much. Someone who makes an effort not to show her own, incredible sadness in front of others.
This is a statue of a woman who thinks no one is watching — a woman alone with herself. But in my experience, women like the one in this statue, women who still wear stockings, who hold onto their hair, who seem to populate towns like the one I grew up in, are rarely ever alone with themselves.
I grew up in a small college town on the hem of Los Angeles County. The streets that run parallel to the colleges are all named after prestigious schools in other parts of the country. Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, Berkeley. This arrangement yields a particular fixation (and ambivalence) towards collegiate prowess.
Harvard, for example, is, of course, the most intimidating brand-name Ivy League, but it is also the street where my father grew up. Oberlin is a champion of the arts, but it is also an avenue that culminates in the parking structure that my sister and I would climb up to look across the Pomona Valley at night. Yale is a gothic tour de force of spires and gargoyles, but it also is the street where I went to elementary school. Berkeley is a nondescript suburban avenue with a retirement home for aging missionaries.
The result is a world in which the stronghold of academia is made commonplace, domestic, local, laid out in a grid. The people who live there feel both suffocated by a grandeur that is not their own and insulated by reputation. Generations come and go but the colleges do not age. The drought may sweep across the rolling hills of California like a fine-tooth comb, but the lawns on College Avenue are green year-round.
And then there are the old women. Charming, abrasive, tacit, tactful, honest, dishonest, in cashmere in winter and cotton in the summer. They wear sandals with a modest heel and powder their feet. They stare back at you through wine-dark prescription glasses. They are birds of paradise in the mouth of the high desert. And when I was a little boy, they were my only friends.
From an early age, I suspected these women had it made. They were fancy. They pin-curled their own hair and drank five cups of coffee a day and made a concerted effort not to think too much about their Depression-era childhoods. They were women who were raised to see sadness as a defect — as a personal failure.
Looking at Mueck’s “Seated Woman” in the Broad museum, I was struck by the statue’s own outward display of grief. It is intensely real. But the true chaos of hyperrealist art is that it takes reality and makes it excruciatingly real, moving it intimately closer to the eye. Which is exactly what the old women I grew up with did everything to avoid. Which is exactly what I do everything to avoid now. Because to examine your own sadness too closely, to place it against a white background and give it clothes and human hair and expect it to somehow get up and walk away is unrealistic.