Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Nov 2002 – February 2003

Review first published, ‘Matters’, Issue 16, Spring 2003.

Perhaps surprising, looking at the thirty or so major works exhibited in this superb retrospective, is that one of Duane Hanson’s earliest sculpted figures was a 1938 painted wood carving of Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. This piece Hanson completed when only thirteen years of age. Tellingly, he kept the sculpture in his own collection until he died in 1996. Having Blue Boy as ‘companion’ for so many years possibly helped Hanson forge the two artistic directives which would come to generate the mature polyester resin and fibreglass castings on exhibition.

Firstly, Hanson was throughout his creative life, a sculptor of the human figure. As a student of art in the 1940s he was not won over by the tendency of American artists towards abstraction. Speaking of the works he produced in the 40s and 50s, Hanson famously noted that although he did try to make abstract sculptures, he would always build in a recognisable part of the human form – an arm, a leg, a nose, a hand – something placed strategically to bring the viewer back to somatic reality. Secondly,Blue Boy is one of the very rare instances where Hanson made an overt reference to a given from the history of images.

Perhaps, then, at the same time as Blue Boy cautioned him not to betray his lasting interest in the human figure, it also stood as the ‘only’ and final example of knowing, formal allusion to cherished art of the past: pardonable as an early experiment into the tactics of representing verity. Hanson’s fascination with the human figure did not go hand in hand with an interest in formal or contextual antecedents. His interest was manifested as a startlingly literal art of the present.

The determination to produce a figurative art which connected directly with his contemporary, cultural context logically drew Hanson close to the works and attitudes of the 1960s Pop artists. Pop art, he said, made realism legitimate again. But Hanson, in his early polyester resin castings, deliberately avoided the glibness of much Pop art production, seeking instead a pointed message for his late 60s sculptures.

A crucial stage in his pursuit of a figut of a figurative art imbued with serious cultural impact is illustrated by Abortion 1965. With this sculpture, Hanson had finally applied his literal realism with great force to ‘life around him’, and had contributed, with no small effect, to debates surrounding what kind of contemporary social subject matter merited artistic attention. Not only was literal figuration to be seen as a valid modus operandi, troublesome current affairs were to be seen as valid sources of material. In this particular case, Hanson had candidly brought to light the practice of some Cuban doctors who were reportedly carrying out illegal abortions in Miami at that time.

This is a shocking work of literal social realism, which contrasts sharply with more well-known Hansons such as Tourists II 1988, also on show. And perhaps this contrast is one of the most striking resonances of this exhibition and one of the most serious subtexts of this style of disarmingly ‘simple’ replication. For here is an artist who, in works like AbortionTrash 1967 and Gangland Victim 1967, pointed out social concerns with horrifying realism, rendering the not-to-be-seen seeable, whilst, at the same time with other works such as TouristsHouse Painter I 1988 and Traveler 1988, letting us see again what is already-there-to-be-seen with wonderful and puzzling redundancy.

Witnessing this contrast might serve to remind viewers of the not-meant-to-be-seen subtexts forever coexistent with the ostensibly harmless, all-too-familiar Americanness on display. For each case of spectacular verisimilitude, which can momentarily conceal its status as fabrication, should be punctured by the stark ‘realities’ which lie beneath the resin skins.

And we are prompted by even the most innocuous figures into contending with this irksome contrast of realities. Hanson’s Bodybuilder 1995 is caught in a contemplative moment. We wonder about his wondering and, even if only for an instant, we get beyond the American virility embodied in the hyperreal appearance of the model, to an increased range of possibilities and narratives.

As a representation of four decades of Hanson’s work this exhibition is excellent, and, as an essay into the dangerously seductive world of all-too-familiar (national) appearances, Hanson’s oeuvre, despite separating from some historical specificities, is as apposite and challenging now as it ever was in the 1960s.