Duane Hanson elevated the ordinary in his art
Duane Hanson's sculptures honor those who go unnoticed. They use a startling realism to present "the everyday man and woman - as is," in the words of Rusty Freeman, curator of the Plains Art Museum, Fargo, N.D., where a current Hanson exhibition includes "Queenie II," shown here. "He took the everyday man and woman and placed them into the museum gallery. He knew that the context ... would elevate them to a different level. You would see them in a new light."
Hanson (1925-1996), by the same process, made you see art in a new light. He said, "the best sculptures should ... appear totally unobserved."
By placing them in a museum, however, he paradoxically asked for them to be observed. In fact, once you have performed the double take his figures often elicit, it is hard to pull yourself away from a detailed scrutiny of their immobile persons. They are uncannily like the unidealized run of humanity. And although they are types rather than portraits, they seem very familiar.
Hanson made casts of live models to form his sculptures. This process ensured he was frankly realistic and unflattering. But before arriving at a finished work, he subjected its cast form to subtle adjustments to bring it closer to his vision. Clearly Queenie II's stance, steady gaze into space, and dignity are calculated to a surprising degree. She seems natural, but is actually artificial - made of painted autobody filler. Her clothes and the accouterments of her job are the real thing - a notion whose ancestry includes Degas's sculpture and Tussaud's wax mannequins.
The Fargo exhibition is the first Hanson exhibition organized near his home state of Minnesota, where he grew up on a dairy farm. Although his working life was largely in Florida, he retained his connections to home. His sculpture reflects "a certain work ethic that belongs to his background," as Freeman points out. "A democratic way of looking at people. No person is better than any other. I think this permeated Hanson to a large degree."
• 'Duane Hanson: Portraits from the Heartland' is at the Plains Art Museum, Fargo, N.D., until April 11. It then travels to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., and the Art Gallery of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.