An American Family

'Duane Hanson: A Survey of His Work From the '30s to the '90s'

If every art has its optimal viewing distance, then Hanson's is close, very close. As if they were trying to sniff out the work's aliveness, people get as near to Hanson's sculpture as one dog will to another. Hanson was on a quest for realness and he almost attained it, but this dream is always doomed. When you do get close to these sculptures, you'll notice something strange: they're not real at all. You can see the painted skin, irregular folds in artificial flesh, the glassy eyes, or how the hair is all implants.

It turns out Hanson's work is so real it's fake. That's why it's wrong to make him an antecedent to younger artists who use superrealist tropes. You never look at a figure by the Chapmans or one of Charles Ray's mannequins and think, "This is so real." On the contrary, these works are so obviously concocted that they open onto a whole different plane of realness, and that, of course, is the imagination. Hanson's work can't do this. He presents people whole, as matters of fact, and unmediated. There's not much you can do with one of his works once you've seen it. Locked in this loop, they are so complete they foil themselves.

So real it's fake: Tourists II and Queenie II (all 1988) at the Whitney
Robin Holland
So real it's fake: Tourists II and Queenie II (all 1988) at the Whitney

But maybe not. Being in close quarters with Hanson's work is a little like listening to a phone-in program about sex: you think, I'm not one of these people. At least that's what I was thinking while I was looking at Woman With a Dog, when a woman, who looked like a Hanson herself, said to me, "Oh my goodness, until you moved, I thought you were a sculpture." It turns out we may all be Duane Hansons.

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