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Vile bodies

The late Duane Hanson's hyperreal figures won't look you in the eye. But their weariness and isolation do make you question the subtle differences between art and life. By Tom Lubbock
It's the most ancient cliche of art-criticism to say, about some painted or sculpted figure, that it is so life-like you'd swear it almost moved or breathed or spoke. You can find the formula repeated in art-writing from antiquity to the renaissance. But nowadays you might suppose that we'd got beyond being wowed in this primitive way. Realism: we know all about that, and we don't rate it so highly, not as such. So it's encouraging to find that there is still room left for this kind of wonder. For what can you say about the works of someone like Duane Hanson? You can only join in the ancient chorus. You'd swear they almost...

The US artist began making his - what's the word? sculptures? models? figures? people? - at the end of the Sixties. It was a late finding of form. He was in his forties. What he'd been doing earlier, and what his influences were, I don't know, and it doesn't seen that important. These creations jump out of art history. They almost jump out of art, period.

True, they can be slotted into a movement called Hyperrealism. They can also be seen as in the tradition of polychrome statuary. And you could pedantically describe them as life-size, coloured statues, dressed in clothes, fitted with artificial eyes and hair, and supplied with real accessories. But it's much simpler to say that they look exactly like people - specifically, like ordinary American people of the last quarter century. Hanson died a year ago.

There are 18 of these figures (that seems the best word) placed at wide intervals around the rooms of the Saatchi Gallery. Mostly they are single, but sometimes in pairs.

Sometimes they have props that make up a little tableau. A Delivery Man rests on a trolley with a can of 7-Up. A Traveller lies asleep over his luggage, his tummy spilling out of his open holiday shirt. A Sunbather with Black Bikini lounges on her sun lounger. A Flea Market Vendor sits among her bric-a-brac sleepily reading a magazine. Plinthless, they share our space.

But in this white-walled setting they are quite obviously exhibits, and I was only once fooled into taking a figure for real, and thus not looking at it first time (Security Guard). On the other hand, if you ask whether the standing figures the pair of gaudily dressed Tourists, say - stay upright on their own equilibrium or are somehow fixed to the floor, I didn't find out because the question just didn't occur to me at the time. Their standing up, like so much else about them, seemed perfectly natural.

Not that you don't look at them as human handiworks. You do. You can't but appraise and marvel at the craft involved, and the main difference from Tussauds effigies is in verismo quality. Hanson's work is hugely superior. Tussauds artists work in wax from observation. Hanson worked from life-casts, using a variety of materials for his bodies, then painting the flesh to an astonishing finish and detail. He got better at it.

The earliest works here, Young Shopper or Rita the Waitress, aren't so far from being manikins. The skin surface, the muscle tension, the bodily gravity of these figures aren't quite there. The hair is clearly a wig. But Hanson's techniques and skills improved, so that with Jogger from 10 years later he squats, one trainer off, kneading a sore foot - there's hardly a false touch. The thinning hair is now implanted, and even arm and leg hairs, which are almost impossible to imitate, are pretty near on. The naked foot with its lines and toe-nails is bewilderingly true.

There's no doubt that a little high realism ups its own ante, making you notice and demand more and more. You become unrealistically exacting, applying stricter standards of verisimilitude than you would to life itself. Are the woman Tourist's fat legs quite probable? For goodness' sake, peoples' legs are often extremely improbable. And sure, human flesh, which is all transparency effects, can never quite be faked by painting on to a surface. But still, from some angles and in some lights, there's really nothing in it.

So much for the bodies. What of the people? Are they real, too? Real enough. Hanson didn't make replicas of the actual people he cast from, but he did seek to make individuals - or rather, people with a normal level of individuality. This isn't portraiture. It isn't "for the viewer" in that way. These figures don't pose in any self-presenting manner. Their stances are non-dramatic. They are still, but with casual, unemphatic stillness. Their expressions aren't far off neutral. They are generally contained. And what becomes noticeable is that none of them meets your gaze. Their eyes are lowered, or raised, or closed, or unfocused or on something nearby. It's near impossible for the viewer to get into eye- contact with them. They remain everyday strangers.

There's something else. They're almost all weighed down, either with their own bulk - many are fat - or with bags or exhaustion or boredom or age. Some are actually asleep or half-asleep, and others look as though they'd like to be. The Woman with Child in Stroller walks along in a sort or dream. It's immediately recognisable as the tedium-reverie of coming back from shopping: footsore weariness, but a moment of drift at least before getting home, when the toddler, who's nodded off at last, will wake up again. It's very well observed.

Well observed? It seems an odd thing to say. That's not because there isn't observation here. Of course there is, Hanson is a realist artist, just as Daumier is. But odd because he's such a realistic realist that the art keeps slipping from view: you wouldn't say of a live person that they were "very well observed". This is a general quandary. These figures are works of art in the most traditional sense of the word. But it's always hard to treat them in arty ways - as hard as it would be to treat a person like that.

There's the question of sheer looking, for instance. They're there to be looked at, but it feels intrusive. Now, the whole art of portraiture exists partly to grant the viewer a sustained intimacy with other peoples' faces that real life only rarely affords, but to do this without strain. With Hanson's people, moving around them, having a good pry, you sense the strain, and this is certainly compounded by their refusal of eye contact, the way they never allow a reciprocating, acknowledging gaze, to make yours OK. You look at them, and you can only look at them.

Then there's the question of themes and meaning, of what these figures are "about": normal art reactions, which, again, Hanson's too life-like figures don't quite permit. Certainly Hanson has his themes. There's the general sense of burdenedness, and with another artist you might call that his vision of life or whatever. But here - well it's something you can say about the figures, but you can't say it's what they're about.

To put it another way: in most figurative art, the figure fully embodies the role in which it is depicted. You don't wonder what Michelangelo's David will be doing at the weekend, or (to take a nearer, more realist, example) if Degas's Little Dancer might have had some other job. The figures' life-potential doesn't exceed what the sculpture shows. But Hanson's people, like real people, separate off from the particular situations in which you find them. They have the rest of their lives. They might have had different lives. And the fact that their present states often weigh heavily on them only augments this feeling.

All this is only to say that the way you respond to a figure in art and the way you respond to a person in life are very different, and Hanson's figures, lurking somewhere between the two, put these responses on the spot. And the temptation is to call the effect disturbing or disorienting; blurred borderlines, uneasy distances, all that. Actually it achieves something rarer and more valuable.

However life-like, Hanson's figures are, like any sculptures, static and isolated. In fact their exacting, art-disguising life-likeness just aggravates this state of affairs. Being a sculpture, after all, is never a happy situation, stuck there by yourself all day. But more hands-on sculptors usually find ways to mitigate this stasis and isolation. They can hardly help doing so, because in the very making of the work there's already a sense of contact and animation. Their figures always arrive visibly swaddled in all the creative attention that's been given them.

Duane Hanson, rigorously factual, removing as far as he can the evidence of his own hands, leaves his figures exposed. Out in the gallery, they have to speak and act for themselves without, as it were, any artist behind then to back them up, and pat them on the head, and say "my babies". They're on their own now, with all their life-troubles plus the trouble of being an art-work too, but with no artistic support. And I think we viewers feel this exposedness, and realise that we have to be a bit careful in our imaginary relations with them. So let's not say that Hanson's hyperrealism is disturbing (boring, boring). Rather, that it's an object lesson in mercy. I hadn't meant to praise him quite so highly, but now I say it it sounds true.

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