Saturday, March 10, 2007

Duane Hanson at American University

Thomas DeBari

The Duane Hanson show at American University’s Katzen Arts Center, is currently up and will be viewable into April. I had a chance to stroll the floor with our current visiting artist, Mr. Rob Pruitt. We talked our way through the bottom floor of the overstocked museum. What is contained in the rest of this article are topics and attitudes discussed.

The first floor of the museum blossomed with anonymous cake icing paintings. The paintings were branded with the quintessential DC love of stripes and color fields. Also, there were sculptures stolen from the Liberace museum in Las Vegas. Rhinestone glass pieces rotated with slow movement, casting its visceral light on the pieces hung within proximity to them.

Photos of the process accompany the Hanson work. The real people which he enjoyed paying tribute to, caught with their pants down, were humorous at times. It is interesting how Hanson’s work succumbed to the mediocrity of the surrounding artwork. Everything seemed dull and crafty when approached. The experience of viewing these pieces from a distance is when it is strongest. Hence you shall not notice the inconsistencies. Out of the corner of your eye, the reality possessed by the figures fills the air. This power enables a viewer to second-guess even the gallery sitters, and the gallery sitters to question the patrons.

Disappointment and questions arose when concerning the upkeep of the pieces. For instance, the props that accompanied the main characters in the sculptures were to have been upgraded and renewed with contemporary version of the products. Surely a curatorial nightmare to replace a can of soda for a new can of soda. The varying craft of the people was also open for discussion. On the second floor, a man sits on a John Deer tractor. Everything should have been cast for this sculpture. The clothes cast on the fat man’s body have a terrycloth texture, and the hat is something whose texture and weight is plastic. The incapacity of the artist to go all the way is bothersome. In other pieces littered around the museum, people have natural clothes and wigs for hair. The skin and the human body being the things really worked on. The clothes on our John Deer man signify a change in process. Surely if the process was thorough, the tractor and the coke can that sits in his right hand would have been cast. Possibly not the coke can.

Another problem that cut me off from suspending my disbelief was ‘the painter’, located to the left of the entrance. Armed with a roller on a pole, the painter looks towards the stairwell dumbfounded. A diagonal role of the Hot Pink Paint lies behind him. The figure is amazingly executed. His clothes are real, not cast. His shirt has a hot pink roller mark. This mark spans 18 inches down his chest. This is anything but an accident. The believability is just sloppy, but then again this is the same painter that made a diagonal mark on the wall. (Everyone who has rolled out a wall knows to always go vertical and to start at a specific starting point not aimlessly in the middle or upper left.) Also from this painter to get that roll across his chest, you would expect some spillage on the floor and the drop cloths to be down on the floor next to the walls. It’s just an attempt to be artsy rather than truthful.

The antique quality of them is also of concern. The figures gaze out of dry, old props and wigs that desperately need conditioner. Yet, they are still powerful. The man sits with his mother lost in his day, for we are lost in nostalgia, and the cinematic transcendence of what the west feels like. The time period of the people are 60’s or 50’s, the gaze of the man drinking the soda is timeless. As powerful as is it is, I think they would be more effective if they kept up with the everyday aesthetic that was first captured.

The overcrowded museum makes the viewer question the value of Duane Hanson’s work as it is mixed with inferior shows. This devalues the exceptional work of Duane Hanson. The context of the work was really poor. Seen with its pop contemporaries, the work is reestablished as valuable and while, still dated, remains fresh. The one notable place of excellence in the installation is the area where the couple eating mimics the other diners at the adjacent coffee shop. The context of the work gels perfectly with its surrounding.

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