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Duane Hanson by Kirk Varnedoe (Abrams: $37.50, hardcover; $16.95, paperback; 118 pp., illustrated)

October 13, 1985|Suzanne Muchnic | Muchnic is a Times art writer

When USC installed Duane Hanson's "Self-Portrait With Model," in an exhibition of illusionistic art several years ago, students were so astonished by the verisimilitude of the frumpy old woman and her younger male companion that they could scarcely look at the rest of the show. Seeing the mismatched couple, casually reading and snacking at a cafe table, the most gullible--and hungry--visitors looked around for the source of the junk food being consumed by the lifelike statues.

More recently, gallery attendants at Cal State Long Beach were amused by visitors saying, "Excuse me," as they passed Hanson's polyester-clad "Woman Reading a Paperback." She leaned against a wall as if absorbed with her book and bored by the surrounding exhibition of figurative sculpture.

People love to be harmlessly fooled, and when the deception is the result of dazzling technical skill, a thrill comes with discovery. When visual trickery seems to right the wrongs of contemporary culture, it reassures skeptics that art is more than a hoax perpetrated by bogus artists and pointy-headed intellectuals. Those who have been baffled by Minimalism and Conceptualism don't have to ask of Hanson's work, "What's that supposed to be?" They know that they are seeing an extraordinarily skillful example of art imitating life.

There's more to Hanson's art than its striking appearance, but not enough to convince some critics that his art is of great importance. Thus, we find an esteemed art historian going to elaborate lengths to fit Hanson's sculpture into the scheme of illusionism. Varnedoe starts, predictably, with the Greek artist Parhassios' grapes--so meticulously drawn that they fooled a flock of birds--and progresses through Renaissance sculpture to Hanson's Pop and Photo-Realist context. Fitting Hanson into an imaginary historical survey exhibition, he proposes a unifying theme "of a high anatomical particularism focusing on 'common' people--subjects neither picturesque nor grotesque, but uniformly unideal."

Hanson's subjects are the very people who might most appreciate his technical expertise, if not his unflattering portrayals of them. They are slovenly blue-collar workers, dumpy housewives, cheerless shoppers and gawking tourists. One thing these folks have in common is that you aren't apt to find them in art museums. Another is their attitude of dejection. This is important, for while the depressing emotional tenor of Hanson's work moves it into the realm of expressionistic social criticism and away from Photo-Realism's clinical distance, it also makes his work predictable.

Punching at a bag of social injustice, he first gave us violence--in "Race Riot" and "War"--then legions of lower-middle-class people who are beaten down by work and bereft of spirit. Despite Hanson's attention to realistic detail (and Varnedoe's protestations to the contrary), much of his work verges on caricature. It sets forth evidence of a failed society but leaves museum visitors room to feel superior. Any discomfort they feeltends to come from the seamy reality of the sculpture and its placement in a gallery rather than from the figures' social position. This is the perplexing edge of Hanson's work that makes it both disappointing and perpetually intriguing.

In "A Conversation With Duane Hanson," following the scholarly essay, the artist confesses that despair is "sort of my formula," then talks about "getting more variety." He says, "I discovered that you don't have to hit the viewer over the head every time, you can come in rather sneaky and get the message across."

Recent works--a polyvinyl "Jogger" and polychromed bronzes of the same young black man as a "Window Wash er," a "Custodian" and a "Housepainter"--show progress in the direction of subtlety, though the black figure has a vaguely heroic air that could become as formulaic as the despair.

No matter how Hanson's work is finally perceived, he must be recognized as an astute observer of a segment of American society. For readers more concerned with the how than the why of his production, a chapter on processes relates his methods, from choosing and positioning a model through mold-making and casting to implanting hair and painting.

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