Occupying prime exhibition space in the cosmopolitan Serpentine Sackler Gallery are ordinary and often overlooked working class (which Americans call middle class) figures sculpted by the late American artist Duane Hanson. A cleaning lady with her trolley, Queenie II, is placed alongside a variety of labouring or reflective figures in slouched stances. These include a man on a lawnmower, builders taking a break and an elderly couple on a bench.
Though hyper-realistic, these sculptures appear surreal, eerily life-like, unsettling in their gaze and confrontational as presences. They are aesthetically stunning creations. They are replete yet, in a way, dead. Hanson gives detailed attention to their bruises, stubble, heat-swollen veins and unobtrusively dimpled skin.
Such careful craft imparts a reverent and altruistic tone to the sculptures rather than artistic objectivity or detachment. The reverence reveals the political nature of Hanson’s work. He wants to be kind and sympathetic as well as visually objective in his sculpture. A quote from Hanson in the exhibition catalogue states that; “In the turmoil of everyday life, we too seldom become aware of one another. In the quiet moments in which you observe my work, maybe you will recognize the universality of all people.” Famously, the figures were all modelled on real people, with their clothes and accessories carefully sourced from thrift or second hand American stores.
The verisimilitude of the sculptures imparts a haunting, death-in-life quality to the exhibition. All craft is trickery for the viewer, a distortion of reality. What Hanson blurs is the line between object and participant in the show.
The clearly ordinary and suburban depictions of Hanson’s characters also serve to anticipate the voyeuristic nature of our digital age and transgress traditional taboos surrounding overlooked members of society. We are forced to notice them. The realism of the sculptures is also an anticipation of increasingly significant present progressions in 3D printing technology.
Perhaps the saddest and most disturbing piece in the exhibition is Trash, a dead baby in a bin with a plastic bag over its head; foetal hands are softly clenched. Cynicism resonates profoundly from this piece, perhaps as an indictment of illegal abortion practices rife among poorer American communities in the 1960s.
Certainly the pieces are of their time, Coca-Cola bottles, a branded detergent box, a FILA t-shirt and a chocolate sundae is the era of pop art and consumer goods being inserted into works of art. Similarly, a copy of the farcical and comedic magazine ‘Soap Opera Digest’ lends a retro tone. But this is not the main point of Hanson’s exercise. Books by Norman Mailer and D.H. Lawrence featured in the exhibition lend a sublime postmodern nod.
Ultimately this show is disturbing and mesmerising. The achievement is exhilarating.
The Duane Hanson exhibition runs until the 13th September, for more information see here.
Photos courtesy of The Serpentine Gallery.
By Tara Flynn