Exhibitions: Lady, you cannot be for real

Duane Hanson's famous sculptures of ordinary people turn out to be surprisingly moving when you see them in the flesh
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Everyone knows what a Duane Hanson sculpture looks like, for they are reproduced in every survey of Pop Art and American Realism. Yet there has never been a Hanson exhibition in this country, though he has been widely shown in Europe in the last 20 years. I was surprised by the show at the Saatchi Gallery. One expected these models of American types to be merely diverting, as Pop Art usually is. They turn out to be much more than that. These figures are subtle and touching.

Reproductions of Hanson's sculptures miss an essential part of his work. The camera doesn't convey the sculptures' humanity, nor the slightly creepy feeling that one gets from their verisimilitude. The illusionism is remarkable. You can easily go up to some of these pieces thinking that they are real but motionless people. Simply in terms of imitation, they are far more accomplished than any waxworks. When you examine them there's a shock that they can be so lifelike, yet at the same time hint at death. And then the sadness comes in. Hanson's art is not caricature, as some people claim. Nor is it "social comment". He simply looks at the part of America he knows best and finds that most people are more unhappy than they imagine themselves to be.

A big portrait photograph of Hanson suggests that he was himself a sad person, though blessed with such components of the American dream as family, friends, worldly success and a nice house in Florida. He died last year at the age of 71, so was rather old for a pop artist. And a lesson of this show is that he had little to do with Pop, especially since it was not his purpose to entertain. Hanson was a serious if unfulfilled artist for many years before he started to make the work for which he is now so renowned. His early sculpture is all destroyed and he rarely spoke of it. Apparently it was "aesthetic", a quality that could not satisfy a man who was a realist at heart.

Equally obscure is the seven-year-long period in the 1950s when Hanson lived and taught in Germany - though we do know that a German artist introduced him to the use of polyester resins. New materials intrigued Hanson: perhaps he had never felt at home with the traditional ones. It was still some time before he began to use resins to cast from the body. The breakthrough was in 1967, when he was 42, and the catalyst seems to have been the anti-war sentiment of the time. Hanson made tableau- type pieces with titles like War, Vietnam Scene and Race Riot. There was quite a lot of three-dimensional art with similar themes, particularly by Ed Kienholz, so Hanson wasn't original. But he alone was interested in total verisimiltude, and when he dropped symbolism and protest at the beginning of the 1970s it was the pursuit of lifelikeness that made him unlike any other artist.

By that time Pop Art had been going for a decade. In the large view it makes more sense to associate Hanson with the realist strain in American art that was born in the 19th century - and may now be dead. Realism was not only ingrained in American culture. It was also regional. Hanson, a Minnesota farmer's son who made his home in Florida, was a regionalist both by nature and professional choice. He lived for just three years in New York, and that was when he made his violent and political art. Away from the New York scene, he could consider what people are really like. The sculptures became calmer, kinder at heart. They also became more aesthetic.

The earliest piece in the Saatchi show is Lady with Shopping Bags of 1972. Shoppers in one form of another, but generally female, were a favourite subject in the Seventies, but I disagree with the theory that they represent a critique of consumerism. These ladies' needs are too ordinary for the vanity which is a part of the consumerist ethos (Charles Saatchi, a shopper and consumerist in excelsis, might have other views). I prefer to think of the shoppers as neighbours, for people of the neighbourhood are a staple theme of American regionalist art. For a little while, Hanson represented American tourists, who of course are the opposite of neighbours. But the sculptures looked too much like caricatures, so he wisely went back to his home patch and produced Young Shopper, Rita the Waitress and Man on a Bench - genuine neighbours, because Hanson observed these people going about their local business and then persuaded them to be remade as sculpture.

A couple of good pages in the catalogue describe this how this was done. First find a neighbour. Shave off bodily hair, grease with Vaseline, then add some fast-setting silicone rubber. Leave for five minutes, then add a support mould of plaster of Paris. Later, release the mould with surgical scissors. Careful with the subject's head. Now inspect the moulds before using a vinyl casting material. This stuff can be smoothed with soldering irons if you have visible joins or imperfections. Rub surfaces with turpentine, then paint with both acrylic and oil. An airbrush is useful. Finally, clothe the body.

I think that Hanson's figures need clothes, if only a bikini, and doubt whether his method could ever have produced a dignified nude. Dignity is important in nearly all the 15 works on display, but the subjects do not claim any personal pride. We know them for what they are because of their work-people's uniforms or informative casual dress. Hanson gives them dignity because he obviously appreciates the travails of their lives or just the fact of their existence. But the clothes must not be overdone, and when there are too many accessories the sculptures are less successful. Both The Photographer and Flea Market Vendor have too many bits and pieces strewn around the figure.

Hanson was a figure artist and a portraitist, but with problems. His figures have to evade eye contact, for that would spook the spectator. While all his figures are life-size, Hanson couldn't deal with a tall person, or even a handsome one. That would have led to monumentalism or idealism and certain failure. He was on safer ground with stocky types, bodies not usually celebrated in art and scarcely ever in sculpture. Here was his contribution to modern portrait art - and it was his alone. One can't imagine anyone using his technique with such good results. He must have possessed that mysterious gift, an unerring but individual eye for the looks of other people.

! Saatchi Gallery, NW8 (0171 624 8299), to July; free admission on Thursdays.