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Art imitates life: Exhibit leaves you guessing what is real

Though he's been dead for eight years, Duane Hanson is finally getting something he wanted all his life -- a major homecoming show. From the 1960s until his death from cancer in 1996, the Alexandria, Minn., native's realistic sculptures of averag...

Though he's been dead for eight years, Duane Hanson is finally getting something he wanted all his life -- a major homecoming show.

From the 1960s until his death from cancer in 1996, the Alexandria, Minn., native's realistic sculptures of average Americans leading middle-class lives changed who looked at art and how they looked at it. Still, he was largely unknown and unappreciated in his home state.

"Portraits from the Heartland," a collection of 24 lifelike sculptures occupying all three floors of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, runs through April 11.

"He was always disappointed about not having a show in his home," says Wesla Hanson, the artist's widow, at the opening reception held Feb. 7. "We're so thrilled to have this at the Plains Art Museum, which is close to Duane's home. It couldn't be better in New York."

Though Hanson had a 1987 show at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, a historical museum, "Portraits from the Heartland" is the first solo art museum show in North Dakota or Minnesota.

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"We consider him a regional artist," says Rusty Freeman, curator at the Plains. "It was his growing up in the Midwest that made him want to portray real people."

Snapshot sculptures

Hanson's sculptures are often as much snapshots as they are portraits. The poses he captures are not heroic, but rather ordinary and mundane, with personal names replaced by generic titles. Expressions on the faces often appear lost in thought or tired in the cases of laborers like "Queenie II" or "Housepainter."

Instead of employing models, Hanson sought out types, says Tin Ly, who worked with the artist from 1985 until he died at the age of 71. Ly now works in Davie, Fla., on his own art and as a conservator of the sculptures.

"When he had some idea of subject matter, he knew what type of person he was looking for," says Ly, who visited the Plains to help unload and set up the exhibit.

Friends and family

Often Hanson used friends and family. His sons Paul, Craig and Duane Jr. all modeled for "Policeman," "Medical Doctor," "High School Student," respectively. A younger version of junior is seen in "Children Playing Game" with his sister Maja.

Even the family pet is captured in "Beagle in Basket," a bronze mold taken just after the dog had died.

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Hanson's pieces are unflinchingly real. The artist cast models and filled molds with durable substances like polyester resin and fiberglass, polyvinyl, autobody filler and eventually bronze.

How many parts were individually cast depended on how complicated the pose was, with most works joined at the legs, torso, arms and head. The assembled pieces were then covered with an oil-based paint to approximate skin color. The process was time consuming and Ly says only two pieces were finished each year.

Even in minimally clothed pieces like the bare-chested "Bodybuilder," the seams are invisible. The artist used prosthetic eyes and painstakingly poked each hair into the surface with a syringe, or used wigs for women.

"The way the surface is finished is so well done, sometimes I can't tell (what the material is)," Ly says.

Immune to trends

Though "Portraits from the Heartland" largely spans 20 years, from 1976 to '96, the middle-class subjects are immune to fashion trends.

"Self-Portrait with Model" from 1979 features the artist in a plaid shirt and jeans sitting across from an older woman in a checkered housewife's dress. The only thing dating them are the periodicals spread across the table. Both could use a "Queer Eye" makeover, but likenesses could still be found in cafes across the country.

The oldest piece in the exhibit, 1967's "Trash," is also one of the few to address any social or political issues. It's also the only one not owned by Wesla Hanson.

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Partitioned off from the rest of the exhibit and posted with warnings, the sculpture features a baby's body, head covered in a plastic bag, left atop a garbage can alongside a discarded umbrella, an egg carton and a used box of detergent. Done before Hanson refined his style, the coarseness of the baby's skin is more expressionistic than realistic.

Ly says Hanson was provoked to address the issue by the deaths of women before legalized abortions.

"He wasn't trying to make a judgment one way or the other," Ly says, adding that Hanson only wanted to create a dialogue about the situation.

The other political piece, "Chinese Student," reflects the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 when student protesters in Beijing were violently put down by Chinese authorities.

Ly, now 50, was 35 at the time and modeled for the piece, which depicts a protester sitting on a blanket. The subject wears a headband that reads "Fasting for democracy," and a similar sign lies to the right, reading, "Victory to democracy."

"It became an international event that stirred everybody up," Ly says. "In a sense, Duane wanted to do something that would commemorate the historical event. In a sense, all of his work is a record of the time."

"He put the average, everyday person in the museum setting," Freeman says. "It really focused on middle-class America and ordinary people. It allowed people to look at sculpture and also look at themselves."

Oddly enough, one of the last pieces Hanson made was intended to be his first outdoor installation. "Man on a Mower," completed in 1995, was scheduled to be exposed to the elements in Monte Carlo. The piece, bronze from the hat to the seat, would have pushed the boundaries of realism again, bringing art to its natural home outside the gallery.

"Duane is the first one to reintroduce the human form into contemporary art," Freeman says. "He really was outside the art world. He didn't care about the art world or allure of New York City."Hanson was more at home in the Midwest, and Freeman says he returned annually for reunions before finally being buried in a family plot in Spruce Hill Cemetery in Minnesota.

Freeman's hoping real people come out to see the show at the Plains and when the museum sends it on the road to other Midwestern markets in Omaha, Neb., Columbus, Ohio, Windsor, Ontario, and finally Sarasota, Fla., where the show ends in July 2005.

"It's pretty monumental for a medium-sized museum to launch a national tour like this," Freeman says, referring to the effort from the entire museum staff and a catalog published by New Rivers Press in Moorhead.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

- What: "Duane Hanson: Portraits from the Heartland," an exhibition of work by the late famed sculptor Duane Hanson, an Alexandria, Minn., native

- When: Through April 11

- Where: Plains Art Museum, downtown Fargo

- Information: (701) 232-3821 or www.plainsart.org/exhibits

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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