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Duane Hanson: Portraits from the Heartland


(above: Duane Hanson, Cowboy, 1995, autobody filler, polychromed in oil, mixed media, with accessories, Collection of Mrs. Duane Hanson, ©Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA/New York, NY)


Duane Hanson: Portraits from the Heartland presents an array of famed American artist Duane Hanson's sculptures of the human form so super-realistic they are often mistaken for real people. This ground-breaking exhibition offers a fresh perspective on the artist and his uncannywork. On view May 8 through August 1, 2004 at Joslyn Art Museum, Duane Hanson includes 22 sculptures in bronze or autobody filler, a favorite medium of the artist, all painted realistically, adorned with real clothes, and posed naturally -- such as a retired couple resting on a bench, a cowboy leaning against the wall, and an overweight man "exercising" on a John Deere riding mower. Most of the works in the show are from the collectionof Wesla Hanson, the artist's widow, and span nearly 30 years of production. It is also the first large-scale exhibition of its kind to focus primarily onHanson's Midwestern upbringing and its influence on his artistic vision. (right: Duane Hanson, Policeman, 1994, bronze, polychromed in oil, mixed media, with accessories, Edition 3/3, Collection of Mrs. Duane Hanson, ©Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA/New York, NY)

Hanson was born in Alexandria, Minnesota, and raised in the nearby farming community of Parkers Prairie. He graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, and later received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. Settling eventually in Florida, Hanson never strayed far from his Midwestern roots. The agrarian environment, in which families depended on the land and livestock for sustenance, shaped Hanson's moral character and instilled in him the value of hard work and the importance of community. Hanson recognized both the physical and financial difficulties of those who made a living from physical labor. This background is essential to understanding and interpreting Hanson's sculptures today.

As an artist, Hanson was a social realist, looking at a broad range of people in society and making observations about their everyday life. He recognized and admired ordinary people, like laborers and the elderly, whom he believed had been marginalized by society. Through his art he sought to make the general public aware of their presence and contributions to society. Hanson's figures often seem introspective or contemplative; which also provides the viewer sufficient psychological space to observe these human surrogates in detail. Their clothing and accessories connote a profession or role in society with which audiences can easily connect. By placing this big-as-life, everyday imagery in a gallery setting -- traditionally reserved for "high art" - Hanson explored the meaning of his art in the museum context.

This exhibition is organized by the Plains Art Museum, Fargo, North Dakota.


Wall text from the exhibition:

Duane Hanson (1925­1996), internationally known American sculptor, was a son of the Heartland. A native of central Minnesota, Hanson was born in Alexandria and grew up on a dairy farm in nearby Parker's Prairie. He was a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, later earning his Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. Although he spent the greater part of his career in southern Florida, Hanson's view of individuals and community was formed and reinforced by his Midwestern roots.

As a keen observer of the everyday world, Hanson joins fellow Minnesotans who have helped shape our comprehension of commonplace American life. The wry regional humor of novelist Sinclair Lewis skewered small-town America with its knowing satire. Garrison Keillor, author and creative force behind radio's A Prairie Home Companion, has endeared us all to exploits of the familiarly idiosyncratic residents of the fictional community Lake Wobegon. Singer and songwriter Bob Dylan has made indelible folk heroes of characters of the most ordinary stripe, including the downtrodden, lovelorns, and scoundrels. Together, they have created true and fascinating portrayals in which we find the breadth of American society. (right: Duane Hanson, Chinese Student, 1989, autobody filler, polychromed in oil, mixed media, with accessories, Collection of Mrs. Duane Hanson, ©Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA/New York, NY) 

Hanson's hyper-realistic sculpture expresses a vision of the everyman and everywoman in the world around us. He did not idealize nor romanticize his subjects, but worked carefully to present them as they might exist in real life-plainly, simply, and unadorned in uneventful situations. His artworks describe familiar types from all walks of life, especially those who work with their hands for a living. Even at their most satiric or sharp, Hanson's sculptures reveal the artist's empathy for those typical Americans whom he immortalized in autobody filler and in bronze.

Hanson's eye on humanity was penetrating-he analyzed every detail that our postures, expressions, clothing, and accessories say about us. He was sometimes critical, especially in his early work, where he bluntly commented on society's blind eye to such deeply troubling issues as poverty, war, and race. Some artworks take a comical stance, poking fun at people unconscious of their own foibles. Ultimately, Hanson's sculptures show a sympathetic understanding and respect for human nature in all its variety.

Foremost, Hanson was a master manipulator of reality. He wanted to express that which he saw around him and about which he felt earnestly-the worth of human life, with all its quirks, blemishes, anxieties, banality, and concerns. Hanson's sculptures step off the pedestal and into the realm of our experience, the mark of his uncanny ability and his unerring eye.

Hanson chose his models according to the "look" he was trying to achieve. Age, gender, and body type all played a part in his selection. His models would range from family to friends to colleagues and students from the local community college art department. These models would become the forms from which Hanson would make his molds. The process of completing a sculpture took an average of six months.

First, Hanson took Polaroid pictures of the model to find a pose that looked relaxed and credible. The model, having shaved off most of his or her body hair, was greased with petroleum jelly to ensure easy removal of the casting material, a fast-setting silicone rubber. This material was applied directly to the model's skin. Each body part was completed separately; first the legs, torso, arms and, finally, head.

After each mold dried, it was cut up the back, opened, and removed from the model. Hanson then poured in liquid polyester resin reinforced with fiberglass (later in his career he switched to using autobody filler, or polyvinyl). When set, he released each part from its mold and used soldering irons to finish seams, smooth flaws, and adhere the body parts.

In the assembly process, Hanson worked from the feet up. His goal was to assemble a figure that looked unposed, natural, and authentic. Once assembled, he reworked the sculpture's surface to correct imperfections and enhance the overall effect of authenticity. With his standing sculptures, Hanson not only had to balance the figures, he had to make the stance of the sculptures look natural. It was an intuitive decision. The sculptures had to look right and, above all, could not give the impression of being arranged.

In painting the cast sculptures, Hanson discovered he had to exaggerate the light and shade, particularly around such expressive features as the eyes. He used acrylic paint first, followed with an oil paint to get the desired skin tone. He experimented with such various media as crayons to render imperfections in the skin and nail polish over oil paint on the fingernails. For the sculptures made from hard polyester resin (such as Old Lady in Folding Chair), Hanson bought wigs. The softer vinyl material allowed hairs to be poked in with a needle, integrating strands of gray, black, and yellow hair, for a more realistic illusion.

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