- 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.
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.
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".