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SIGHTS : Confronting a Painful Taboo in Commanding Manner : Chris Hanson's art show tackles the subject of incest, but is effective enough to avoid being reduced to mere polemics.

March 16, 1995|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sculptor Chris Hanson's "Outcry of Incest," now at Art City II in Ventura, is one of those shows that refuses to be taken lightly. As with any art broaching taboo-cloaked subjects, the risk of public apathy and outrage runs high. But Hanson's commanding work is well worth seeing, for reasons artistic and beyond.

In an artist's statement, Hanson explains that "this work has been produced from ideas and images floating up to consciousness from some place within me.

"For four years this process has taken place. Half of that time I was not aware of the meaning of this revelation as each piece in the making would take me through an emotional upheaval."

As a kind of statement of purpose and introduction to the show itself, the actual piece called "Outcry" is a large, black fabric panel marked with white handprints and scattered with pained comments from various incest victims. We read, in tiny handwritten letters, "wake up, PapPap," "I don't trust you anymore, daddy," and--in what could be the anthem of the exhibition--"tired of carrying secrets."

Powerful emotional residue doesn't always inspire a subtle response. Some of the works here state their case forthrightly, with little artistic pretension. "Teddy Bear" finds a cluster of cuddly bears trapped in a cage: innocence incarcerated.

The cage-like enclosure of "Gray Crib" finds a pile of ashes, replete with an unnerving odor, where a baby might rest. "Wednesday's Child" features an amorphous, frail figure, head bowed, flanked by a baseball bat.

But, in the main, Hanson's exhibition is as potent as it is not because of explicit details, but by virtue of deceptively simple, symbolic imagery--at once elemental and metaphorical. An aura of pain and non-specific sadism hovers in the gallery.

And yet the anguish in this art is suppressed, sublimated, redirected--just as abused children suffer in often inarticulate and confused ways. That central motif is conveyed best in "The Scream," with lights blinking like noiseless screams, beneath a bed of bullets.

Ambiguous implements of torture are suggested in "Aunt Marie" and "Iron Maiden," with its foreboding, spiked black steel frame offset by a plush red stuffing.

Large, stark forms tell stories with relief pieces such as "Mother's Milk," a protruding steel cage mammary, the antithesis of a nurturing image. "The Secret" is a giant oval made of metal and layers of chicken wire, surrounded by a pillowy black perimeter--something between a womb and a fencing mask.

"Intruder" is another deceptively benign-looking piece, but whose title and contextual placement in this exhibition bring out a darker side. A smoothly sensuous wooden cube is intruded upon by a leathery, phallic serpent. In another show, this piece might be viewed in a different light. Here, context is everything.

The presence of stones and weights--the stuff of emotional baggage--becomes a recurring motif in the show. In "Family Pictures," ash-covered and bandaged little sacks are laid on a dainty layered table such as one's aunt might have in her sitting room. "Collar" is a large wood-and-bolt construction containing heavy stones marked "SHAME."

The strongest piece in the gallery is, not coincidentally, also one of the simplest.

"Tears" involves a clutch of teardrop-shaped, black leather sacks, like small punching bags and drooping balloons, suspended from a rafter. The "tears," strangely, look like a much glummer, poor relation to glass artist Dale Chihuly's festive chandelier in his recent blockbuster show at the Santa Barbara Art Museum. They dangle precariously on a square of white tiles such as you'd find in a shower.

Friction between the elements, a sublimated image of pain and the sterile sheen and rational appearance of domestic life, makes for a chilling evocation. Hanson, a remarkably assured sculptor for one who has been making art for only five years, carefully deals with some striking dichotomies in this work.

But, needless to say, this is more than art for art's sake.

Hanson said, "What I'd like to do with this show is to serve an activist function and bring attention to the problem of incest. Some people have come in to see this show and they can hardly take it. It's so painful, and there are a lot of memories that have been repressed. I can talk about it, because I've dealt with the problem through this art."

One could approach art-as-therapy or art-as-activist's fodder with some suspicion. When art is fueled by an extra-aesthetic agenda, the artistic process can sometimes be blunted.

But with this show, as a whole, Hanson manages to conjure up associations rather than specifics, and art rather than mere polemics.

This is not to say that the central theme of the show is ever less than evident. Looking at this art is an experience tinged with anguish.

That we leave the gallery in a swell of mixed emotions is a sign of its success.

With this work, Hanson has burrowed into a murky, insidious area of human suffering and created images that speak out for victims who may not even know the degree of their own victimization. This is art that stings on its hopeful road to healing.

Details

* WHAT: Chris Hanson's "Outcry of Incest."

* WHEN: Through March 26.

* WHERE: Art City II, 31 Peking St., Ventura.

* CALL: 649-1103.

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