DUANE HANSON: BODY-BUILDER EXTRAORDINAIRE

The Saatchi gallery will be full of polyester people this week, but don't worry - the chic north London space isn't going to the dogs. The venue is staging this country's first exhibition by American artist Duane Hanson, a sculptor skilled at embalming life-size middle-class American folk in polyester and resin.

The artist, who died last year, began moulding figures in the 1960s, using body casts taken from friends and family. Many of these early works showed a propensity towards explicit social protest, with tableaux such as Poor Man In A Casket, Murder Victim and Suicide presenting uncannily life-like images of injustice and violence.

Picketed by outraged protesters, the first exhibitions achieved a certain succes de scandale. Hanson soon shrugged off such blatant politicising, however, for a more disturbing, deadpan photo-realism. Characters such as Supermarket Shopper, Tourists and Lady With A Cleaning Cart began to populate his world - figures which, despite a mortuarist's attention to detail (Hanson spent hours sewing in forearm hair and painting on broken veins), are fascinating for their waxen soullessness.

At the vanguard of a certain unflinching, pop art-influenced realism known as hyperillusionism, Hanson played around with the grotesquery of American "types" before opting for a style of eloquent banality. Whether supping a fizzy drink, snoozing on a sunlounger or gazing, arms akimbo, at some unseen tourist attraction, Hanson's subjects embody the pathos of everyday existence, the nature of private experience in mass society.

In one interview, Hanson admitted that he "tried not to pick people that are very interesting - like an interesting face or a strange expression. I tried to stay away from that, to confront people with something from their daily experience."

The result is as if passers-by have stepped off the Miami streets and into Madame Tussauds. Not famous or even notorious, these are simply weary figures caught in repose, bodies whose empty eyes force the gaze onto their common accumulation of consumer luggage - bags, sunglasses and cameras, along with the corporeal baggage of swollen ankles, wrinkles and layers of fat.

Perhaps Hanson's greatest achievement was the artlessness of his social commentary. Asked once about the evaporation of politics from his work, Hanson replied: "You can't always scream and holler; you have to once in a while whisper, and sometimes that whisper is more powerful than all the screaming and hollering and fussing and fuming you can do."

Saatchi Gallery, 98a Boundary Rd, London NW8 (0171-624 8299). Continues to end of July. Open Thur, Sat, Sun 12-6pm pounds 3.50

LS

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