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Jim Henson's Apprentice: Ron Mueck

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In the words of reader Shann, Ron Mueck (born 1958) is a "totally awesome sculptor" whose work is "so life-like." This weekend's "Feel Art Again" post features the notoriously private Australian sculptor who rarely grants interviews, even in the days leading up to his exhibitions.


Ron Mueck (pronounced MEW-eck) was introduced to the magic of crafting objects by hand at a young age: his German parents were toymakers. Mueck often enjoyed assisting with the creation of toys. He later honed his skills not in art school, but as an apprentice to Jim Henson. Labyrinth, Sesame Street, The Storyteller, and other Muppet ventures benefited from Mueck's touch.

Sources of Inspiration

Despite their "hyper-realistic" nature, Mueck's sculptures are rarely created from live models, though he always uses a mirror. Instead, Mueck references anatomy texts (preferring Professor R.D. Lockhart's Living Anatomy), pregnancy books, photos, his own memory and imagination. For "A Girl," he referenced a photograph of one of his daughters, taken just after she was born, to paint the blood on the baby. "Pregnant Woman" and "untitled (Big Man)" are two of the few works for which he did employ models.

Artistic Process

Mueck's process is extensive: he first creates clay models to decide on a position, then sketches the figure in a variety of sizes to determine scale. The next step is to sculpt the figure in clay, followed by molding it (either in fiberglass or silicone) and painting the details. The final step is to sculpt the eyes. Today, Mueck usually uses silicone for his figures, but because it attracts dust and grime, Mueck brushes his sculptures with baby powder (or "friendly dust," as he describes it), which "leaves less room for the "˜bad dust.'"

Realistic Figures

Mueck has said, "I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day." Yet although Mueck's figures are always larger or smaller than life, they're still startlingly realistic to most viewers. According to the National Galleries of Scotland, "people find it hard to believe"¦ that they are not real." Mueck goes to great lengths to ensure his figures are as realistic as possible—he even used his own hair for "Dead Dad." While some critics in the art establishment consider his work to be on the level of "an unclothed department store mannequin," others believe Mueck "takes one to the very edge of the idea of life" and that "the eyes especially give these works such uncanny emotional force [and] human resonance that rises far above the status of a stunt."


After spotting one of Mueck's sculptures in Mueck's mother-in-law's studio, Charles Saatchi began collecting and commissioning the sculptor's work. Mueck's big break came with Saatchi's "Sensation" exhibit, which included Mueck's "Dead Dad," among others. He later served as an Associate Artist (a two year position) at London's National Gallery. In 2002, the National Gallery of Australia paid the (then) highest price for art by a living Australian to purchase Mueck's "Pregnant Woman."

A larger version of Mueck's "A Girl" is available here.

Fans should check out Mueck at the James Cohan Gallery and the Broad Art Foundation; behind-the-scenes photos of his process from Gautier Deblonde, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Modern (Fort Worth); and the Washington Post's slideshow of his exhibit at the Cartier Foundation.

"Feel Art Again" usually appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]