Virtual messages

While Duane Hanson’s contemporary works lack the controversial nature of his older pieces, they still carry powerful meanings

Facial expressions from “Old Couple on a Bench” (1995)

Facial expressions from “Old Couple on a Bench” (1995)

Photo by David Robert

Chinese Student” (1989-90) is, in some ways, a departure for Duane Hanson. Of all Hanson’s works on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, it is the only one that carries a blatantly political message.

It depicts a young man, sitting on a dirty blanket, bruised and dejected. His bike lies off to the side of the blanket. His headband, in Chinese, reads “Fasting for Democracy.” He still grasps a sign, also lying on the ground, that reads “Democracy Now.”

But in other ways, “Chinese Student"—which was motivated by the Tienanmen Square uprising in 1989—was not a departure for Hanson at all. The artist, who died in 1996, got his start in the 1960s as an activist artist. His works, at that time, almost all had a strong message—some were so strong, in fact, that certain people didn’t consider them to be art at all. They depicted numerous topics, including deaths from abortion, racism, murder and suicide.

That doesn’t mean Hanson’s more contemporary works lack a message or meaning. They depict average people, most with solemn looks on their faces. Yet many of them have a certain dignity to them.

“His art is talking about the middle class in America, in their daily lives,” said Tin Ly, Hanson’s former assistant, who was in Reno for the opening of Duane Hanson: Virtual Reality. “There’s isolation, and they’re introspective.”

Ly said the solemn looks on all the works’ faces are also that way for a practical reason: The faces were cast from molds of actual faces, and it’s much easier for a model with a mold on his or her face to hold a relaxed, solemn look than it is to hold a smile.

Ly himself served as the model for “Chinese Student.” Being a model for Hanson was not an easy process. First, Hanson took photographs of the model in various poses. The model would then often be asked to shave his or her body hair from the modeled body parts (lest it be removed more painfully when the mold was removed) and to coat the body parts with petroleum jelly. A quick-drying silicone rubber would then be placed over flexible rubber molding material, which was placed directly on the model. A narrow seam would be left along the cast areas for easier removal from the model.

“Flea Market Vendor” (1990)

Photo by David Robert

After the molds were made, they would be touched up before a blend of polyester resin and fiberglass were poured inside them.

Ly said it was quite a “long, tedious process” to go through.

“I had to sit in the exact same pose for one whole day to do the live casting,” he said.

Hanson would assemble the body parts, repairing seams with filler, before painting the bodily details on. He’d then poke the hairs into the scalp and skin to make it look like the sculpture was growing hair. The final touches, including clothing and props, would then be added.

In the case of “Flea Market Vendor” (1990), Hanson went through great pains to make the work as real as possible. Ly said the books and art being sold by the woman, who wears a hideous blue T-shirt that proclaims, “I am a Big Deal,” were actually bought in their entirety from one flea market vendor.

“Security Guard” (1990)

Photo by David Robert

“I’d go to a flea market and ask ‘How much for everything?'” Ly said. “This lady looked at me thinking, ‘He’s crazy!'”

This is actually the third of four stops for Duane Hanson: Virtual Reality. It originated in Palm Springs and spent three months in San Jose before coming to Reno. After the exhibit’s run ends here on June 24, it will head to Portland, Ore., for seven weeks.