Explore - The world in the artwork

Ron Mueck Two women

Content and subject matter

The content is what you see represented in an artwork. The subject is what the artwork is about – this can be what you see or the feelings or ideas suggested by what you see.

It’s useful to think about whether the artwork is representational or non-representational:
  • A representational artwork describes something you can recognise or identify.
  • A non-representational artwork is composed of materials and elements that don’t obviously represent anything in the visible world.
Some questions to think about
If the artwork is representational:
  • What does it represent? What do you recognise in the artwork?
  • Does what you see relate to a type of art, for example, portraiture, landscape, still life or history painting, or does it have another focus?
  • Is what is represented realistic, naturalistic, idealised, distorted, or symbolic? What makes you think this? Why has the artist worked in this way?
If the artwork is non-representational:
  • What is presented? For example shapes, colours, objects?
  • Are they presented for their own sake or do they serve a practical or symbolic purpose? What makes you think this?

How does this artwork compare to other artworks of the same type?
For example:
Mueck’s sculpture depicts two old women who appear to be deep in conversation about something or someone that they are looking at. Although the sculpture is small in scale, the materials and details create an astonishingly realistic representation of two old women. The subject matter and extreme realism of this sculpture is in contrast to the idealised beauty we often find in representations of women in the history of art.

Art elements and design principles

Art elements are the visual and sensory language used to make and talk about artworks. These include colour, shape, line, tone, form and texture. In installations or time-based artworks like film, elements such as sound or time may also be important.

Art elements can be used in many ways to create visual and sensory effects. These visual and sensory effects play an important role in how an artwork communicates ideas and meanings.
The way art elements are used and organised in the composition of an artwork to create visual and sensory effects usually involves one or more design principles. These include focal point, space, rhythm, variety, unity and balance.

Some questions to think about
  • What are the most important art elements and design principles in the artwork?
  • Where and how have these elements and design principles been used? Why are they important?
  • What visual or sensory effects, ideas or other meanings does the use of these art elements and design principles suggest?  

For example:
The wrinkled skin, fine grey hair, thick stockings, sturdy shoes and heavy woollen coats of the women in Mueck’s sculpture reflect the artist’s careful observation and life-like representation of textures, colours and form. By placing the stooped forms of the two women close together, and facing each other, the artist creates a strong relationship between them, and a feeling of visual unity.

Materials and processes

What are artworks made from and how are they made? The visual and sensory effects created by the materials and processes used to make an artwork play an important role in how an artwork communicates meanings and ideas.

Some questions to think about
  • What materials and processes have been used to make the artwork?
  • What visual effects and qualities are created as a result of these materials and processes?
  • Does the artwork look like it was made quickly or slowly? What makes you think this?
  • Has the artwork been made by more than one person, or manufactured? Is this significant?

For example:
Mueck has used materials including polyester resin, fibreglass, silicone, polyurethane, aluminium wire, steel, wool, cotton, nylon, synthetic hair, plastic and metal to create a convincing illusion of reality in his sculpture.  The sculpture is first modelled in clay by the artist.  The figure is then cast in polyester resin and silicon in a mould made from this model.  Details such as hair and clothing are added later.


Ron Mueck

Two women

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Art Start Feature Film

Alex, Ben and Zack go behind the scenes at NGV and find out more about art and the Gallery

View Art Start (19.40 mins)