Gustave Courbet shook up the art world back in 1850 when he dared to paint regular folks — peasants, no less — doing regular folks’ jobs. He made glamorous works of beauty out of highly unglamorous stuff. “The Stone-Breakers” is a powerful oil painting of the backsides of laborers doing the type of backbreaking stuff suggested by the work’s title.
A century and a half later, Duane Hanson (1925-96) was a modern-day Courbet. The Cranbrook alumnus’ sculptures — on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Windsor in a show of 22 works dubbed Portraits from the Heartland — depict construction workers on the job, a black female janitor with her rolling trash can loaded with cleaning supplies, an old lady waiting for the bus, a big-ass man riding his lawn mower. Indeed, these are regular folk doing regular stuff. But that’s not what draws audiences so compulsively to Hanson’s work.
Hanson’s life-sized sculptures, made of synthetic materials such as polyester and auto filler, as well as bronze, are so realistic it’s downright creepy. They’re so lifelike that it might take a viewer several minutes to realize the figures are not, in fact, alive.
The figures are heavy with life and appear to be suspended in between motion, in between thoughts. They’re almost sad as they seem to contemplate the weight, the burden of life. Everything about the presence of the works is normal, melancholy; so normal it’s extraordinary.
The sculptures are made from molds of actual people, often Hanson’s friends and family. This is the first show to illustrate Hanson’s Midwestern influence, the gallery’s contemporary art curator James Patten says.
The artist grew up in Parkers Prairie, Minn., a farming community. Throughout his career, his works championed the underprivileged and the elderly; his works in the ’60s dealt with social issues such as abortion, the Vietnam War and racial violence.
The show was chosen as part of the gallery’s effort to reach out to the surrounding community, Patten says. Increasingly, galleries across the United States and Canada are hosting shows with clear public appeal to get people in the door. With the Hanson show, the gallery has achieved its goal; the show has drawn thick crowds, Patten says.
“The Duane Hanson show was consciously chosen,” Patten says, to appeal to the working-class communities in Detroit and Windsor. And the gallery hopes that showcasing an American artist will attract American viewers. “You have to be more in tune with what the audience is interested in,” he says.
The AGW is showcasing three other shows this fall that spotlight the labor class. An exhibit of industrial portraits by Yousuf Karsh was so successful that the show has been extended to run through Nov. 14. The photographs present workers in Windsor’s Ford plant, circa 1951. The black-and-white photos sparkle with personality, and play a nice contrast to the monochromatic gelatin prints from the 1920s by famed modernist Charles Sheeler, now showing at the Detroit Institute of Art.
Also at AGW is an exhibit of Marty Gervais’ photographs of boxers from the Border City Boxing Club in Windsor and the Kronk gym in Detroit. Gervais followed young boxers through training and in competition, and some of them participated in the creative process.
On Nov. 20, the gallery will showcase a video called The T-Shirt by Canadian Indian artist Shelley Niro. The six-minute film depicts a strong Indian woman standing in front of a panoramic landscape, wearing sunglasses, an American-flag bandanna, jeans and a white T-shirt. Printed on the shirt is a series of messages, such as, “my ancestors were annihilated exterminated murdered and massacred,” and “they were lied to cheated tricked and deceived” and “all I get is this shirt.” Eventually the shirt disappears, and the subject becomes a white woman wearing the T-shirt.
Nice to see the AGW getting down to the nitty-gritty.
The Art Gallery of Windsor is located at 401 Riverside Drive West in Windsor. Call 519-977-0013 for information or visit artgalleryofwindsor.com. The Hanson show runs through Nov. 14; the Gervais show runs through Dec. 5.Lisa M. Collins is arts & culture editor for Metro Times. Send tips and comments to [email protected]