Three Australian artists reveal the obsession and deep fascination with the hyperreal by using the human body as a lens to understand our relationships to one another, time, and our environments.
Melbourne-based artist Sam Jinks is interested in the natural texture of living things. His artworks extend the multi-dimensionality of this into life-like and -size sculptures in glaring honesty; skin sags, flesh overlaps, hair falls softly over the face. “I started life drawing at 11, and it was about learning the language of form and the human body,” Jinks shares. “There’s an elegance to the way a body moves and rests, and I always wanted to be able to capture that.”
For the artist, the human body reveals a story, and after starting to observe the body in such detail so early, it’s one engrained in both his mindset and oeuvre. “The human body is the carriage which transports us; it’s a complex structure: a bony interior with softer layers wrapped over, which makes it challenging but satisfying to sculpt,” he maintains.
Though this fascination could also be a comment on society and how we interact with each other — often Jinks’ sculptures appear to be holding or comforting each other — instead, the artist works introspectively, reflecting on the broad experiences humans have had over centuries. As hyperreal pieces of art, the audience is reminded of Freud’s theory on the uncanny or unheimlich, something which feels so familiar yet is not what it seems. Jinks’ artworks invite the unsettling, or eerie — rendering the human aesthetics unhuman.
In his sculptures, Jinks draws on silicone, resin, calcium carbonate, fiberglass, and hair after modelling with clay; they capture the figurative likeness and are trigger points for people to react. “Usually, people will be momentarily startled as they walk into a room containing a mannequin, so these materials happen to be the tools I use to engage the viewer unconsciously,” he adds.
“I sculpt in clay over a wire armature, then make a mold of the finished piece, then paint the tinted silicone into the mold to build up a certain translucency,” the sculptor reveals. “Once the piece is out of the mold, I paint surface details like freckles and veins, poke individual hairs in to create a full head of hair, or body hair. Moving away from exclusively using silicone, I’m starting to use more gypsum-based plaster and other elements like water.”
As the works reveal the relationships between old and young, Jinks poses comments on life and death and how to observe those rituals of humanness. “What happens at the beginning and the end of life are critical parts of the human experience, and I’ve always been fascinated by both the introduction and exiting of consciousness,” he explains. “There is an inward and outward movement of life, a tide constantly repeating.”
Similarly, Brisbane-based artist Michael Zavros presents his observations on these journeys of life through his hyperreal paintings. His children often appear within his works, but they become a way to reflect on ageing and his experiences. The artworks become a vehicle for expression, offering surreal juxtapositions in deeply luxurious images that seem to ooze pleasure — a comment on consumerism and self-obsession that has been consistent throughout human history. And yet, as the audience is invited to peer into the works, we begin to question what we see.
“So much of my work toys with notions of the real and the fake . . . They’re playful fictions, which extend to the works that portray aspects of my own life,” Zavros explains. “For example, my still life confections containing flowers and fruits in the form of something like a dog or a bird mock the realism employed in painting them.”
As the decedent portraits of King Henry VIII became historical records, they also are full of iconography that allows theorists to unpack the psyche of the sitter. The same can be said of Zavros’ paintings. “I enjoy creating these fictions or narratives — they may function like historical documents one day, and yet they are not entirely truthful,” he shares.
In Zavros’ most recent exhibition, A Guy Like Me (2020), the artist is rendered into a mannequin through a series of photos with his children — at the beach or seated for dinner. The artist reveals, “it was not intended as a reflection of the times, a dystopian reality, but ironically it does speak to the surreal distance and disaffection the pandemic has created.”
Like Zavros and Jinks, Melbourne-based Patricia Piccinini uses her hyperreal sculptures to tell stories. Though uncomfortable for the viewer, the works are centered around care and connection using bioethics to visualize future dystopias. The reflection on the uncanny is evident as body parts bludge unnaturally — human and animal features blend, and cars are anthropomorphized. However, Piccinini maintains, “while there is often strangeness, there is never violence or horror — the work springs from the basic assumption that all life, all bodies, all beings are beautiful and valuable.”
“For the viewer, the challenge or perhaps the opportunity is to discover that beauty beneath the strangeness of a creature that we might be unfamiliar with. This is a key dynamic in my work: the viewer’s journey from disquiet to warmth, from aversion to care,” she continues.
Piccinini started her art career in photography in the 1990s using digital technologies to create those distinctive realistic creatures the viewer can now distinctively recognize as a Piccinini work. Her first attempt translated her narrated chimaeras in 3D taxidermy, followed by working with car modelers to create Truck Babies (1999). “Towards the end of the 1990s, I realized that just as I could adapt the Photoshop and 3D CGI technologies used by the special effects world to create photographic and video works, I could use a similar approach to make sculptures,” the artist recalls.
While the sculptures carry dizzying weight in a gallery space, for the artist, the medium specificity isn’t the main output. Instead, Piccinini explains, “I think that art is about images, ideas and stories and it’s all about making compelling and meaningful artworks that connect to contemporary viewers. When I work with these techniques, I do so because I find that viewers can more easily suspend disbelief and create a meaningful emotional connection with the work.”
As each of these artists reveals, hyperreal art holds a significant place in art history — centered on the human experience as something to delve into. The works pose questions about our relationship with ourselves and each other, how we will survive and adapt to the future, and the age-old reflection on ageing and human’s profound obsession to control it.