A Duane Hanson Show at the Boca Raton Museum of Art Prompts a Reevaluation

Mea culpa. I confess. For years, I didn't "get" Duane Hanson.

Oh, sure, I got that he was probably both the best and the best-known American realist sculptor of the human figure, certainly the best at his particular brand of all-out, trompe l'oeil realism. I got that nobody else prompts such a visceral response to his work — an almost irresistible urge to reach out and touch to see if, against the odds, it's indeed real flesh and blood and not a conglomeration of resin, fiberglass, and auto-body filler (AKA Bondo) finished in oil paint.

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"Duane Hanson: Sculpture and Photographs 1978-1995," through April 26 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 561-392-2500, or visit bocamuseum.org.

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Hanson's hold on the viewer is such that museum guards must constantly be on alert, lest curiosity get the best of visitors and they try to cop a surreptitious feel. No doubt that's why Hanson himself finally succumbed to the joke and created Security Guard (1990), one of his most locally famous works.

That piece, slouched against a wall, is a familiar presence to regular visitors to the Boca Raton Museum of Art, where it's on long-term loan courtesy of Hanson's widow, Wesla. Visitors routinely approach it to ask questions — I've seen it happen. It is also among the eight sculptures brought together by the museum for the current "Duane Hanson: Sculpture and Photographs 1978-1995," an exhibition as tightly focused as it is small.

The show has been expertly assembled by in-house curator Wendy M. Blazier, and it sets out to demonstrate the link between Hanson's sculptures and the photographs he began making in 1977. A decade into his career as a sculptural photorealist, he took the pictures as an adjunct to his creative process. Roughly a thousand of these photos exist, and most have never been exhibited. They served as preliminary studies for the artist, who set his models in different poses and shot them from different angles.

The final sculptures, this exhibit convincingly concludes, are not so much copies from the photos as composites inspired by them. Each sculpture here is accompanied by anywhere from two to 35 photographs. As we see from Bodybuilder (1989-90), Hanson sometimes even worked with multiple models to arrive at his highly individual works. And as we can observe in the snapshots and sculpture that make up Man on Mower (1995), Hanson made model David Maxwell shed his beard to help create three dimensions on the sculpture. Maxwell, an artist friend of Hanson's, is also the subject of a small retrospective in the museum's auditorium.

Hanson spent roughly the last two decades of his life in Broward County before he died in 1996. He started out in his native Minnesota making a dozen or so photographs per sculpture, a number that rose dramatically by the mid-1980s. Although his images are of interest primarily for the light they shed on his sculptures, they're also intriguing in their own right. Like Andy Warhol's famous Polaroids, they're artless art objects, oddly disarming by virtue of their lack of pretension.

But back to my confession. The last major Hanson retrospective in South Florida was in 1998 at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale. At the time, I wrote of that show, "while the lights may be on, nobody's home," complaining of a certain soullessness in Hanson's work that becomes obvious when you look into his sculptures' glassy, lifeless eyes ("Nobody's Home," March 12, 1998).

Wait, it gets harsher: "Hanson may have believed he was lending dignity to his downtrodden working- and middle-class subjects," I wrote, "and he probably had genuine affection for them. But it's difficult to look at some of these pieces without feeling that the characters have been mocked, however unintentionally."

Whoa. What a difference a decade makes. Maybe it's the context the Boca Museum exhibition provides for the art. But this time around, I had a whole different take on Hanson, thanks in part to the artist's own commentary.

Take this explanation, for example: "The subject matter that I like best deals with the familiar lower and middle class American types of today. To me, the resignation, emptiness, and loneliness of their existence captures the true reality of life for these people." Hanson, it turns out, is a chronicler of the existential malaise of people trapped in an indifferent world.

Seen in this light, the laborer portrayed in Housepainter I (1984/1988), for instance, takes on a grim poignancy. His hollow gaze is not so much the artist's failure of imagination as it is the leap of empathy required to experience the mind-numbing sameness of the man's work. Hanson not only asks "Is that all there is?" but also answers his own question with a bleak affirmative.

Another quote from Hanson: "I think society needs to be reformed: it is not doing things for people; there is nothing uplifting for the average man." So, it seems, Hanson is an old-fashioned liberal who believes in the notion that society has some responsibility to its members.

As for Hanson's public, I still have to wonder if they're enamored of his work for the wrong reasons. All the oohing and aahing you're likely to hear over his sculptures? I bet it's because people are so wowed by the artist's technical wizardry, not because they're tuning in to his great humanist spirit. If so, that's their loss, as it was, but no longer is, mine.

 
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