- Superrealist Painting & SculptureBy Christine Lindey
- Duane Hanson: More Than RealityOur PickEdited by Otto Letze and Thomas Buchsteiner
- Duane Hanson: Sculptures of the American DreamBy Lotte Sophie Lederballe, Thomas Buchsteiner and Keith Hartley
Important Art by Duane Hanson
Muddied and in mid-action, this life-size pyramid of American footballers is frozen at the moment before it is about to topple into a heap. It's an image quite familiar to most football fields. The viewer might be able to speculate on how the action will play out if it was not for the fact that Hanson has omitted the football from the sculpture. It could be, in fact, that the three players are engaged in an off-ball tussle. Though it is a scenario that audiences will have witnessed many times before, Hanson's hyperrealistic treatment of his twisted figures is rather disconcerting having been removed from the context of the playing field.
Hanson cast these sculptures from live models before assembling and dressing them in their carefully selected uniforms. The surface texture of his sculptures was so meticulously rendered that they were even adorned with hairs, bruises and veins. Created in the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and in lieu of the fact that Hanson was operating in the era of Pop Art, it is possible (tempting, even) to read the piece as being analogous with the violence and confrontation that had become a part of day-to-day American life.
The Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna has given this work pride of place in its collection and claims that there is an underlying violence that disguises itself in sports uniforms in order to act out naked aggression. Indeed, throughout the 1960s Hanson had been making work of a more visceral kind with sculptures depicting content such as the mafia, a murder victim and a bicycle accident. There is a perfect tension between pretense and reality in this and other works inasmuch as Hanson has undergone several complicated processes in order to emulate a convincing trio of figures. The overall effect is a scene that appears to barely have been choreographed at all. Produced in 1969, Football Vignette marked something of a turning point in Hanson's career. It was one of the last of these more sensationalist pieces before he shifted focus onto more mundane aspects of contemporary American life.
Fiberglass, polyester, original clothing - Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna
This woman is looking a little disheveled. Her legs have bruise marks, her face is pimpled, her clothes are worn, her hair unkempt, and the table at which she sits is cluttered. One is left to wonder how to read this woman. She has bags at her feet, one of which is filled with groceries such as branded pasta and corn flakes. This is a strong allusion to Pop Art which very often represented everyday brands and packaging in an ironic way (as fine art). But the work seems more earnest - more compassionate - in the way it presents its audience with a narrative enigma: what has happened to our protagonist and/or what fate is about to befall her? A story pieces itself together in the minds of the audience who become engrossed in the life of an overweight working-class woman who would likely remain anonymous in the average fast-food diner.
This sculpture used a live model which Hanson then cast using fiberglass and resin before bringing her to life through layers of oil paint. He then dresses his model in actual clothes and accessories, which he usually acquired from thrift stores. Where one might have expected Hanson to use synthetic hair, moreover, he actually applied the human hairs piece by piece to the plastic skin on her head.
Although gallery audiences might be more accustomed to the shimmering white marble flesh of Roman/Greco sculptures, the skin on Hanson's model is pallid and unhealthy, and is perhaps an afront to the standards of beauty passed down from the ages of antiquity. Hanson stated, "the subject matter that I like best deals with the familiar lower-and-middle-class American types of today. To me, the resignation, emptiness, and loneliness of their existence captures the true reality of life for these people ... I want to achieve a certain tough realism which speaks of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of our times". Seen this way, the sculpture also provides the American viewer with a kind of mirror image and they could, if so inclined, be given to wonder how they might be perceived by outsiders, not as individuals, but as a nation.
Polyester resin and fiberglass with oil and acrylic paints and found accessories - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Hanson's life-size figures reached new heights of realism with his Museum Guard. Expected to be quiet and unmoving (as he is) it's easy to imagine that this sculpture could go completely unnoticed. As with his other sculptures, the guard is uncannily lifelike: the head was modelled on his wife Wesla's uncle and the mottled skin featured individual hairs and even age spots on the hands. Unlike most of his other figures, however, Museum Guard is one of the few Hanson works that truly blends into the museum context, bringing his meticulously created illusion to its zenith. The guard is a kind of silent voyeur, unflinching and watchful, confined to his role as a museum guard for all eternity. He is aged, perhaps he has been in his job since his youth. He is even adorned with the badge of the museum - The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas - that was worn by the living museum guards employed there.
The model's grey hair, impassive facial impression, and sagging posture go against the history of figurative sculpture. Unlike marble roman nudes, or even a bronze commemoration of a political victory, Hanson's museum guard is utterly ordinary. And it is his "ordinariness" that endears him to us (should we be so observant as to be able to spot him, of course); our guard is both the viewer and the viewed. On the subject of this sculpture, Hanson spoke of his intention to break down barriers between the visitor and the museum and his guard elicited different reactions from different visitors. Very often the public would walk up to the museum guard and attempt to interact with him, embarrassed or amused as soon as they realize the mistake. Writer Danielle James wrote, Hanson's figures are "captured pensive and dissatisfied, dreaming about a different reality while in uniform for their less than desired day job. All of Hanson's figures seem to be searching for or dreaming of satisfaction".
Polyester, Fiberglass, Oil and Vinyl - Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas
Although he renders his sculptures as lifelike as possible, Hanson's hyperrealistic figures were not the upshot of an artist trying to convince his audience of his great technical skill or that his figures are somehow real. The intention is rather to illicit in the spectator a sense of empathy with his American "every-people". As such, one can claim that Hanson's work is humanist rather than critical or parodic. Indeed, this pair of everyday sun-tanned travelers stand in a gallery setting that suddenly feels warmer and brighter because of their presence. Nevertheless, placing people in surroundings that are unfamiliar to them is a trope well known to situation comedy and there is certainly a humorous quality to Hanson's displaced tourists. As writer Danielle James said, "Hanson's travelers [...] overweight and dressed in bold obnoxious patterns, are caught in a brief moment of inactivity. They look startlingly solitary considering the crowds generally associated with their activities".
This work was in fact the second Tourist iteration, the first dating back to 1970. Hanson explained that his figures were inspired by a trip he had taken to Hawaii where he himself had dressed in bold colors and patterns. Hanson's tourists appear over-prepared and underwhelmed by their surroundings and, like all of his sculptures, the couple are not placed on a plinth. The spectator engages with these disorientated travelers at eye level. James (citing Marinescu) writes, "The sculptures seem to be daring people to look at them at the same time as challenging the viewer to politely avoid staring [they] provide the viewer with the opportunity to ignore the 'rules of appropriate social proximity and etiquette' and 'approach the lifelike sculptures and stare, visually dissecting them and transgressing boundaries otherwise respected in the everyday life'. The sculptures are rendered with such a high level of realism that this still feels taboo, but it feels less invasive than 'visually dissecting' scenes of helpless figures in need of assistance" (as was his preference in his 1960s pieces).
Auto body filler, fibreglass and mixed media, with accessories life size - Saatchi Gallery, London
Hanson's hyperrealism works often trick the eye and the artist has spoken of his fascination with tromp l'oeil painters such as John Frederick Peto. But this knowledge rather belies the fact that his sculptures also offer a more reflective experience through their humanist qualities. As he said, "In the turmoil of everyday life, we too seldom become aware of one another. In the quiet moments in which you observe my work, maybe you will recognise the universality of all people".
Queenie II is one of the few Hanson figures to be given a name. This effects our relationship with her as we feel perhaps more engaged, able to form a picture of her personal life, her background, her characteristics to which her facial expression and somewhat belligerent demeanor give us clues. As the Saatchi Gallery described it, "Queenie can be understood on one level as the personification of all those resigned-looking women who drag their bodies around in pursuit of the mess created by the rest of us. But we are made to confront the fact that such women, who are usually invisible and ignored, are not just faceless domestics".
The majority of Queenie's body has been constructed from bronze; its "heaviness" emphasizing her deportment and Hanson used the same cast for his female Tourist (produced in the same year). The work is in fact closer in tone to Hanson's Museum Guard inasmuch as their identities are tied to their uniforms. James makes the point that "The themes of loneliness and isolation that Hanson tackled with his sculptures are complex and can be overlooked when viewing his work, as the hyperrealism [and] humor [...] often steal the attention". The novelist Douglas Coupland was more interested in how gallery audiences related to the works, "watching viewers interact with his forms is just as much a part of experiencing his work as admiring it on its own. It's very different from seeing mannequins at the mall or model displays in anthropology museums".
Polychromed bronze, with accessories - Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York
This teenager is bedecked in the surfer "uniform" of luminous trunks. These compliment the garish design on the surfboard that defines him. He adopts the pose of a self-aware teenager, right hand placed on his hip; left hand supporting his upright, fluorescently colored board. His gaze does not engage the viewer in this instance. Rather he is looking into the distance, searching the horizon, perhaps, for the perfect wave. Compared to many of his earlier pieces, Surfer is a somewhat minimalist piece. Since all of his figures are abstracted from their natural surroundings, added narrational details are provided in the shape of props which here is limited to just one item: a surfboard. Abstracted in this way, the viewer is asked to ponder a stereotype of that most complex of individuals: the adolescent.
While the sculpture reflects the current consumer culture and its celebration of sportswear, which fitted well with the 1980's preoccupation with outdoor pursuits and physical wellbeing, it also holds personal significance in that the model is Hanson's son. In fact, Hanson often called on family and friends to model for his sculptures (his children Maja and Duane helped out with Children Playing Game (1979), Child with Puzzle (1978), Cheerleader (1988)) but it is not a family portrait as such. It reads rather as a paean to an often misunderstood generation. As Bruce Katsiff, Director of James A. Michener Art Museum wrote: "Artists can expand our understanding of the world in many different ways. Sometimes they introduce us to exotic people and distant vistas; sometimes they offer a vision of a more beautiful and perfect universe. But sometimes artists open our eyes to the world as it is, simply by showing us things that we pass by every day but have never truly seen or understood. Duane Hanson's sculptures help us to see - to know and value the forgotten souls who toil quietly around us in a culture that offers little recognition of their work and their dignity".
Polyvinyl, polychromed in oil, mixed media, with accessories - Phillips, London