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Synthesis of reality

Art imitates life - in painstaking detail - in an exhibit of sculptures by Duane Hanson.

Published May 22, 2005

SARASOTA - Great art endures because it transcends its time and, whatever its age, touches something deep within us, giving us an experience outside ourselves that enlarges our line of vision.

More art is simply good, valuable as a marker of a particular time, a way station of sorts that opens a visual door leading in some new direction. We pass through it and don't need to look back.

That second category is where Duane Hanson's art resides.

The artist, who died in 1996, became famous in the 1970s for his lifelike sculptures of everyday people that startled viewers with their verisimilitude. They have the power to surprise still.

The day I visited the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, where 22 of Hanson's sculptures are temporarily installed, a group of young students clustered in the gallery dominated by Rubens' magnificent, enormous cartoons of biblical scenes. The children had no interest in them. They were drawn to an elderly couple in baggy shorts and shirts, sitting on a bench in the middle of the gallery, looking like their feet hurt.

One by one, the children realized the couple were not living people and they clustered ever closer to the statues. Several tried to touch them and were warned off by a nervous security guard.

"They're not real!" shouted one child, grinning broadly.

They are real, of course, as any object is a real assemblage of materials. That's one of the points that makes Hanson's sculptures interesting beyond their fool-the-eye prowess. They remind us quickly and succinctly that all art is an artificial conveyance of experience.

Most of the sculptures are positioned together in the Ringling's temporary exhibition space, but even within that installation, where we expect to recognize them as representations, they still play tricks on us.

In one area, a trio of tired construction workers take a break on scaffolding and saw horses. You get them. But your peripheral vision notes a uniformed figure leaning against a wall at the room's perimeter and you assume he's a real security guard.

Nope! It's another statue! And the joke's on you.

Round a corner and a conservatively dressed man has the same effect as you see him from a distance. At this point, every figure not in motion is suspect and you find yourself furtively observing fellow museumgoers as animates or inanimates. In this sense, the exhibition is wonderfully engaging and playful.

But Hanson was a serious artist and his work is not just a collection of big toys for theme park entertainment. Near the construction workers is a metal garbage can filled with trash and . . . a dead baby suffocated by the plastic bag over its head. Trash, made in 1967, is the oldest work in the show and represents a transition from Hanson's earlier, very controversial sculptures to the more palatable ones of his later years, the everyday folks caught in a moment, that dominate the exhibition.

He had an interesting career arc. Hanson was a product of the Midwest and later in life compared his artistic sensibilities to Garrison Keillor, a fellow admirer of down-home virtues observed with a twinkling, sometimes sardonic eye. He studied art and was drawn to sculpture, but the abstract expressionism that dominated the late 1950s did not appeal to him. Pop art, born in the 1960s, saved him. As he once said, suddenly it was okay to depict people and things, even if they were the exaggerated versions by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. Hanson experienced a breakthrough with his materials, too, using synthetics for the casts, made from live models, that provided a softer surface with the pliant look of flesh when painted.

His earliest work was heavy on social commentary. Race Riot, made in 1968, was a seven-person tableaux of a police officer and other white men assaulting a group of black men. When he positioned it outside his studio, horrified onlookers thought it was an attack in progress. Work such as Race Riot and others depicting derelicts, a woman dead on a gurney after an abortion, and dead and wounded soldiers brought controversy and validation. South Florida, where he lived, did not take kindly to his art. Administrators locked him out of his studio at Miami-Dade Junior College where he taught at the time and one of his sculptures was banned from an art show. But the larger world took notice; by 1978, he had his own retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

By that time, Hanson had abandoned the overt morality tales and shifted to people drawn from "normal" life. In the beginning they, too, carried some obvious editorializing, though more social than political. His famous Supermarket Lady (not in this exhibition, unfortunately) is an overweight woman in hair curlers, cigarette dangling from her lips, pushing a cart filled with TV dinners and junk food.

The sculptures at the Ringling are kinder and gentler, as if Hanson had formed affectionate partnerships with his subjects instead of viewing them distantly and critically. And that is one of their problems. They have no power or point beyond their observable details.

So appreciate the details. An old woman slumps on a folding chair, a triangle of her slip, yellowed with age, visible beneath her housecoat. Queenie, one of the few sculptures with a specific rather than generic title, stands with dignity beside her large plastic trash bin, her hand resting delicately on its rim.

Hanson was an enthusiastic accessorizer. After casting a figure, he dressed it in real clothes and added real objects that gave it a personality.

Flea Market is of a woman presiding over a sale of old books and bad paintings, priced, a cardboard sign tells us, "1/2 off." She wears a T-shirt with the slogan "I am a Big Deal." She reads a magazine and when we look over her shoulder, we see it's a 1984 edition of SKY, opened to an article about Hanson.

The details accumulate. Car Dealer wears a Piaget watch and has a Cross pen in his crisply ironed dress shirt. Man on Mower sits on a John Deere holding a beer can. An overweight man sits in a chair listening to a Walkman, wearing unscuffed walking shoes, ready but not willing to exercise.

Even if the sculptures do not rise to the level of great art, they have the undeniable ability to affect us. We draw too close to these bogus bodies, invading their space. Hanson alluded to their charisma in Self Portrait with Model, a work from 1979. A frumpy woman sits in a diner. She has finished a dish of ice cream and reads gossipy magazines about movie stars and soap operas. Hanson has sculpted himself sitting across from her, chin resting on his hand with a small smile on his face as he seems to ponder her. He, like us, knows the guilty pleasure of the voyeur.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"Duane Hanson: Portraits from the Heartland" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through July 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission, which includes the museum, Ca d'Zan mansion, the Circus Museum and grounds, is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and military, and free for children younger than 12, Florida students and teachers with ID. (941) 359-5700.

[Last modified May 19, 2005, 10:42:03]

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