BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Duane Hanson

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 07 JUN 97

Americans, it has been said, perhaps unkindly, like to go very deeply into the surface of things. Duane Hanson completely satisfies this desire in his painstakingly skilled workings of the pitted wrinkles and pores of human skin. Trompe l'oeil painting was kept alive and well for decades in Hanson's busy depictions of the cherry-coloured traceries of broken veins, pimples, bruises, abrasions, sun burns, shaving cuts and other damages to exterior flesh surface. Hanson's least successful works were always of people with good skin, especially children.

In the first instance, the sculptures are simple novelty works which - because of Hanson's consummate technical ability - when initially encountered convince the viewer that they are in the presence of another human being. When the illusionist deceit becomes apparent the result is a mammalian disequilibrium - a combination of embarrassment and amused relief - like the feeling of being a dim bull led to ejaculate into a dummy cow, or a muggins duck settling down beside a decoy.

Hanson's work can be divided into three phases, each displaying an interest in contemporary social concerns. The first two in particular correspond with America's counter-cultural agenda of the time. The early works were about protest: multiple tableaux of anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, race riots and social derelicts. In the second stage, the works became a satirical Pop Art, mocking in a cartoon-style such obviously honky targets as America's porcine wealthy and their vulgar consumerist enthusiasms. Finally, the works of Hanson's maturity are wiser and more compassionately observed studies of less differentiated and, by American standards, less conspicuous individuals. Hanson seems to accord respect to the unfashionable Biblical suggestion that we should 'consider the dull and ignorant, that they too have their story'; although to this he seems to have appended 'and the extremely fat'. It is these virtuoso works from 1971 until his death in 1996 that are on show.

Interest in social concerns continues to be subtly apparent in the later works, whose characters are often working class, or otherwise impoverished through enduring differing kinds of alienation and deprivation. The characters' damage appears to be more than skin deep - the result of work, poverty, ageing or isolationist obsessings. This suffering is manifested in the tired repose and unfocused eyes of Hanson's characters, which betray disassociated mental exhaustion.

In these works there is a kind of sentimental Leftism. The artist's observations of impoverishment are entirely legitimate but somehow strangely Victorian. Hanson's interest in unjust deprivation and damage, his gamey and sentimental characterisations of individual types and their patinated grime, invite comparisons with Charles Dickens. However, this resemblance also includes the ability to delight an audience with a splendid disrespect of the opinions of overly sophisticated critics. The sentimental pathos of works like Delivery Man (1980), Rita, the Waitress (1975) and Man on a Bench (1977-78) evince a response of concerned empathy with the existential predicaments of their characters. Queenie II (1988), a black cleaning woman, is accorded a human dignity denied by her labour status and huge arse; Britain's satanic mills have now become America's satanic malls.

Similarly, Hanson may be imperfectly compared to Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Millais, also a master of illusionistic surface renderings. The early high aspirations of the Pre-Raphaelites became increasingly compromised during their careers as their works, although remaining technically excellent, developed into costume histories and genre studies. Hanson's work has been criticised for its popularity with a certain type of collector, like Millais' relationship with the then new class of industrialist and entrepreneur collector who preferred to take receipt of paintings like Bubbles rather than more vital works.

Whether Hanson's sculptures are, like Bubbles, sentimental genre pieces of dewy-eyed pathos, or humane works of generous empathy describing the heroism of everyday life, is a matter of personal opinion. It is possible to say that either way there is a projected emotionalism in his works, and also that there is categorically no sex. This provides us with a last use of the serviceable Victorian analogy. Whereas today's many mannequin, waxwork and dummy artists make scrupulous enquiries into the reticulated mucous folds, skin flaps and crisply individuated pubic hairs of their subjects, Hanson does not. In this respect he is a bit of a Victorian hypocrite, hiding his face from the genital reality of sex and displacing it into the superbly sensitive skin surfaces of his sculptures.

The show's otherwise reasonable catalogue essay includes a wishful thesis that Hanson's artistic heirs are the Chapman brothers, Gavin Turk, Jeff Koons and Abigail Lane. Although these artists may, at a stretch, have some interests in common, these cannot really be said to be shared with those of Duane Hanson, other than in respect to technique. It is like saying that Will Self's genitalia novella Cock and Bull (1993) is the direct artistic heir of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860). In fact, contemporary genitalia artists provide a neatly symmetrical reversal of Hanson's Victorian evasion. Artists today can seem as squeamishly shy and embarrassed by the honest acknowledgement of deeper feelings and sincere emotions, such as selfless love, as any trembling Victorian maiden would feel about acknowledging the existence of sex.

What Hanson and these artists do have in common is that they are skillful craftspeople who paint convincingly illusionistic representations onto three-dimensional surfaces. They have successfully overcome the perceived opposition to illusionistic painting, neatly outflanking the prejudice against it, and this is the real significance of any shared relationship.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.