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Nobody's Home

The work of sculptor Duane Hanson exerts a powerful pull on people. It's not unusual to see a handful of museum visitors clustered around one of his life-size, detailed, uncannily realistic sculptures of the human figure, inspecting it with both amazement and wariness, as if vaguely worried that the piece might rouse itself and stroll out of the gallery. Nor is it unusual to see people overwhelmed by the urge to reach out and touch a Hanson sculpture, just to be absolutely sure it isn't alive. Museum guards are constantly shooing away overly curious patrons and warning others not to get too close to the art.

"Duane Hanson: A Survey of His Work from the '30s to the '90s," which is on view at the Museum of Art in downtown Fort Lauderdale, is certainly bringing in the crowds. And by the time the show concludes its unusually lengthy run (six and a half months) in early August, it probably will have been seen by far more people than the average South Florida exhibit.

Is that a good thing? I'm not so sure. Clearly Hanson's work gets a reaction from people, but does it affect them in ways the artist intended? "My art is not about fooling people," the late sculptor once declared. "It's the human attitudes I'm after -- fatigue, a bit of frustration, rejection. To me there is a kind of beauty in all of this."

But what people respond to in Hanson's art is precisely the opposite. They're fascinated by how his work fools them into believing that they're looking at real people instead of figures comprised of man-made materials such as fiberglass, polyester, polyvinyl acetate, and auto-body filler, or Bondo. Hanson's work is nothing if not a meticulously detailed re-creation of reality that tricks the mind as well as the eye. The no-touching policy may be less a matter of protecting the art than of sustaining the illusion; there's nothing like the cold, hard surface of polychromed oil to convince us that what we're seeing is far from alive.

As for Hanson's claim about reflecting human attitudes, most of his pieces strike me as being devoid of them. They're posed to resemble humans, all right, and Hanson's technical matery of his medium (or media) is such that, at first glance, we really are fooled. But a closer examination reveals that, while the lights may be on, nobody's home.

Look behind the chunky glasses and into the eyes of Young Shopper (1973), for example, and see if you discern anything other than a clever illusion. Spend a few minutes with Lunch Break (Three Workers With Scaffold) (1989), and you'll probably find yourself admiring what Hanson called "accessories," the props that round out the scene. The blank faces of the trio of construction workers are far less compelling than the attention lavished on the inanimate details: the pizza box tossed carelessly to the ground, the battered beverage cooler, the drill, the soda can in one man's hand, and the scaffolding that makes up the work site.

Hanson may have believed he was lending dignity to his downtrodden working- and middle-class subjects, 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. After a while I began to wonder if Hanson had ever portrayed, say, someone well dressed, or someone who felt even the smallest amount of joy in life.

The inert emptiness of Hanson's figures occasionally works to refreshingly comic effect. The hollow-eyed couple of Tourists II (1988) will doubtless strike a familiar chord with South Floridians accustomed to invasions by overweight, camera-toting, tropical-print-clad out-of-towners. It's a cheap joke, yes, but also an irresistible one that Hanson had a right to make; he spent the final twenty-odd years of his life, until his death in 1996, living and working in Broward County.

And there's a forlorn-looking fellow called Traveler (1988), who looks as if he might have been plucked from one of the overcrowded concourses of Miami International Airport: a snoozing man in shorts, baseball cap, and open shirt, leaning against his luggage. Here, for once, a real human attitude does come through for Hanson, and I can't help thinking it may be because the man's eyes are closed. In most of the other pieces, it's hard to get past the glassy soullessness of the figures' unwavering gazes.

A friend familiar with Hanson's work declined to visit the show because he felt sure it would be like wandering among a lot of department-store mannequins. I finally conceded he was more or less right. It's one thing to stumble upon a single Hanson sculpture by itself in a museum; it's quite another to see one after another in numbing succession.

A couple of exceptions, both from 1967, are set aside in one gallery and suggest what Hanson might have wrought had he been drawn more to human beings in extreme states (think of some of Edward Kienholz's more disturbing tableaux). Motorcycle Accident features the aftermath of a crash that has left the rider's body contorted and covered with scrapes, contusions, blood, and dirt as he lies near his crumpled bike.

A few feet away, Gangland Victim jars us with Hanson's highly visceral rendering of a man whose mutilated torso, wrapped in thick rope and chained to a weight, has been retrieved from the depths of a muddy, watery grave. Here the harrowing realism reinvigorates a stock figure from American pop culture. It's a strange irony that Hanson achieved more artistic vitality in these two corpses than in most of his other, oddly sterile portrayals of characters molded from live models.

"Duane Hanson: A Survey of His Work From the '30s to the '90s" is on display through August 2 at the Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5500.

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