As artists, when we think of Realism, we usually think of perhaps Andrew Wyeth, maybe Norman Rockwell, or someone like Richard Estes. An artist we don't often think of is perhaps the one doing the most realist figures imaginable. And as an indicator of just how parochial we are as painters, this man is not a painter at all but a sculptor. His name is Duane Hanson, and I defy you to come up with an artist that carries realism to any greater extreme. If you go to a Hanson exhibit, don't talk to the security guard. He's a Hanson sculpture himself.
Hanson was born in 1923 and drew his greatest influence from the Pop sculptor, George Segal (not to be confused with the actor by the same name). Segal is remembered for casting his life-size sculpted figures from live models, clothes and all, in plaster, then setting them up in realistic settings to make some point regarding social ills, ironic comments on the loneliness of urban society, or human foibles such as our willingness to waste half our lives standing in lines for even our most mundane needs. Segal's figures retained the ghostly whiteness of his plaster as they lolled about his realistically reconstructed environments. In a sense, Hanson's figures are the exact opposite of Segal's. They are cast not in pale plaster but in polyester resins and fibreglass, painted with oils, and dressed in real clothes from K-Mart, seated or standing not in constructed tableaux but in the same, real environment in which the viewer also exists.
Forget your elongated, department store mannequins in dramatic, stylised poses, primped to outlandish lengths in the pursuit of "human" perfection. These are real people, warts and all, sporting real human hairs, with glasses correcting the vision of glass eyes, fat, tired, scarred, and so human the security guard's handheld radio actually beeps and hisses with human voices. Hanson hit the art scene about 1963 with harsh, super-realistic figures such as a girl dead from a botched abortion, or homeless derelicts, or work such as Gangland Rape (the title says it all). While his work definitely made a visual impact with a raw statement of artistic outrage, it was not living room art...not even work deemed fit for art galleries or museums at the time. Hanson ended up teaching at a Florida community college to make a living. As he grew older, he and his work both mellowed. Today, his figures are no less realistic, but they make more subtle comments of the human condition, underscoring the tedium of our daily lives, or highlighting the hopelessness of the daily "grind." His work is still painted illusion, but one which carries realism to such extremes that, short of androidal animatronics beyond what even Disney has yet managed, it is as real as art gets.