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"Duane Hanson: Sculptures of the American dream" opens at Museum of Ixelles
Duane Hanson, Children Playing Game, 1979 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2013, Courtesy of Institute for Cultural Exchange, SABAM Belgium 2014.

BRUSSELS.- From an early age, Duane Hanson was mesmerised with the human form and his fascination with the subject remained. Early sculptures were created from a variety of materials including wood, polyester and bronze.

In the forties, Hanson was faced with abstract expressionism, the dominant trend of the time. With an emphasis on sculpture for fifteen years, he failed to deviate from figuration, despite abstraction. Pop Art and its literal representations of everyday objects such as Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo packets, offered Hanson the means of realism as a form of expression. Trash (1967) is an early example and in his own words:

I went to school and you heard you had to be modern… I didn’t really warm up until Pop Art made Realism legitimate again.

Between 1965 and 1996, he produced more than 140 sculptures of men and women; highly realistic figures reflecting a particular interest of the artist regarding man and his condition.

But the work is not merely a perfect representation of reality. There is much more behind this illusionist approach. Through his work, Duane Hanson explores current issues of American life, the frailties of humanity, holding a mirror to society.

A key work of this period is Abortion (1965), a 64cm long sculpture, representing the body of a pregnant woman lying on a table covered with a white sheet. After exhibiting for the first time in Miami in 1966, Hanson decided to give it more impact by reproducing it to human scale. Disappointed with the larger version, he immediately destroyed the work, as he did with other pieces later in his career. But from then on, his work became human sized sculptures.

From 1967 onwards, Hanson used moulds obtained directly from live models. He achieved the appearance of his characters by means of a mixture of polyester and fibreglass, wigs, real clothes and accessories, all imbued with traces of actual wear. The exceptions were in works intended for outdoors, such as Man On A Mower, which were made of bronze and painted.

These technical processes remained unchanged until the end of his career. The critique of everyday reality is another constant inherent in his work, although a significant change in his chosen subject is apparent. While his early works, such as War, Race Riot and Gangland Victim (1967) are a powerful comment on the cruelty and injustice of society, his work dating from 1970, such as Old Lady In Folding Chair (1976) and Man With Walkman (1989) seem less harsh and more satirical, representing archetypes of Western society. Visual violence subsides, but the critical element remains.

The exhibition Sculptures of the American Dream, falls precisely into this later period. To quote Henry David Thoreau, one can understand Hanson more fully:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Hanson’s sculptures not only impress with their striking similarities to living people, they are primarily a hyper-realistic means of presenting the humanity of modern life beset with isolation, loneliness and alienation.

Hanson’s obsession with the variety of poses of the human body gives rise to incredibly dynamic characters whose action is momentarily paused, allowing us to view the very essence of a person, complete with every imperfection, every mark etched out by the daily reality of existence. In viewing them out of context, Hanson explains, dissects and exposes microscopic layers of American society, making the invisible, visible.

Duane Hanson is considered one of the leading exponents of hyperrealism, the artistic movement beginning in the late '60s in the United States. Other artists of the genre used photography as a starting point; John De Andrea (female nude sculptures), Chuck Close (large scale portrait paintings), Richard Estes (pictorial representations of transparent and chrome surfaces) and Malcolm Morely (reproductions of postcards into a large format).

At first sight, hyper-real images faithfully reproduce a real image since it originates in photographic form. However, these artists represent more than simple reality. They evoke a greater reality. The approach reflects upon the representation of the visible and questions the meaning of art itself.

Today, the pioneers are still in business, namely Richard Estes and Chuck Close. They are joined by a new generation of hyper-realist artists such as Ron Muek and Maurizio Cattelan who, through new techniques, take on current issues to produce photorealism work, seemingly demonstrating the sustainability of the genre and its relevance today.

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