City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Past exhibition

Duane Hanson: Real People

11 November 1988–8 January 1989

ORGANISERS Edwin A Ulrich Museum of Art, Witcha; Auckland City Art Gallery OTHER VENUES Auckland City Art Gallery, 23 August–9 October 1988; Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch, 3 February–19 March 1989; Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 5 April–21 May 1989; Waikato Museum of Art and History, Hamilton, 5 June–19 July 1989; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane SPONSOR NZI Corporation

A drug addict is flaked out in the gallery. A little girl puts together a jigsaw puzzle of a map of the US, while her puppy sleeps in its basket. Overweight tourists stare straight ahead, standing stock still.

Real People consists of seventeen life-like sculptures by the popular American hyper-realist, Duane Hanson. He makes silicon-rubber moulds directly from 'real people’, then casts his sculptures in polyvinyl acetate. He paints them, inserts human hair into their heads strand by strand, and clothes them. He can spend weeks searching for the right outfit and props. Director John Leuthart says, 'Each sculpture can be seen as a frozen moment of human experience.'

Hanson has been making his figures since 1967, quickly becoming famous for exploring news-grabbing subjects, from illegal abortion to the Vietnam war to gangland crimes. His 1969 show, Bowery Derelicts, presented skid-row winos surrounded by empty wine bottles and rubbish. Hanson was criticised for such sensational subject matter, but, over time, his subject matter mellowed, but remained no less telling about the American condition. Time magazine calls his work, 'the most grossly truthful pieces of social observation in American art.'

Hanson's work trades on its illusionism. Hanson calls himself a ‘non-artist'. His critics echo this, asking: is this art or just a mechanical reproduction? But perhaps the criticisms betray class prejudice. The show includes a life-size replica of Hanson, like a down-and-out blue-collar worker, facing a fat woman across a diner table. There are also sculptures of his two daughters (aged six and fifteen years); a man with a handcart; shoppers; and a photographer. His latest work, American Tourists, cast in bronze, is on show for the first time. However, it's impossible to tell that it's bronze.

Hanson says, 'People love to watch people but they feel guilty about doing it. With my figures, they can go up to them, stare at all the wrinkles, the hair, the skin tone—something they wouldn't dare do normally.’ Real People certainly attracts people-watchers. The public turns out en masse. The charge exhibition—$6 per head—is attended by over 35,000 viewers, the largest audience for a show at the Gallery to date. City Gallery hires extra security to deal with the crowds. Gallery hours are extended.

In the Sunday Times, Warwick Brown says, 'On a superficial level, like a waxwork show Hanson's sculptures are just plain entertainment as virtuoso feats of illusionistic realism. Hanson makes fake people.' However, Brown describes Hanson as more than an 'illustrator' and looks at him as an inheritor of Duchamp's concept of the readymade. 'He works in the area of the commonplace, with uncommon skill.'

In the Evening Post, critic Ian Wedde writes, 'Looking at Duane Hanson's sculptures, not to mention at the people who came to visit them, the art pundits must have felt they were seeing not so much sculptures, as their own longed-for audience.' For Wedde there is something 'resolutely provincial' about Hanson's sculpture, while the atmosphere in the gallery is like 'a morgue.' He concludes, 'Duane Hanson's realism is really a provincial revenge—a revenge wrecked on high art and what it stands for by those victims of the American Dream's failure.'

Hanson visits Wellington to check the exhibition layout and present a public lecture. He poses with his 'self-portrait' for the Dominion. A recorded voiceover occasionally announces that 'Duane Hanson merchandise is for sale upstairs' and reminds viewers not to touch the exhibits.