Beyond The Bounds Of Realism With Hyper-Realism

One of the customary criticisms of what we may generically call “modern” art is that the bizarre distortions of the figures in the works – even music, e.g., the works of John Cage – render the art inaccessible to any but the most sophisticated tastes and temperaments. Such critics point to, e.g., Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” as examples of modern art’s alienation from the public. (The late evangelical Christian writer Francis Schaeffer even went so far as to argue that “Nude” was actually evil and sinful, because it was a form of pornography in that it encouraged the viewer to search the image for a picture of a naked woman!) Compare Picasso and Duchamp, et al., with, e.g., the great landscape artists of the Hudson River School and artists of the American landscape like Albert Bierstadt.

The latter we usually call “realists”. But an interesting phenomenon seems to have been developing since the 70s in that some artists – I will concentrate on Duane Hansen, though there are many others – who pushed the aesthetic canons of realistic, representational art to the point that their realism is so real as to actually blur the distinction between realism and non-realism … even perhaps even something approaching surrealism. The former, when pushed to the ragged edge of its limits as an artistic idiom, transitions into something like the latter. At that point, realism becomes, in a sense, more real than the real subject of the painting and becomes hyperrealism.

Le Demoiselle d'Avignon

Beginning in the 1970s, hyperrealism grew out of the previous movement of photorealism, but with some important differences. (There are excellent essays comparing the two schools of art here and here, though I do not have the time or the space to enter into my own discussion of these relationships.) Perhaps the most salient difference between photorealism and hyperrealism is that photorealistic artists like John Baeder, Ralph Goings, and Chuck Close attempted to capture and reproduce photographs with great verisimilitude, with no attempt at embellishment or alteration.  What photorealist artists like Baeder, Goings, and Close were concerned to do in two dimensions, Duane Hansen attempts in three with his hyperrealistic sculptures. However, this is not the only, or even the most important, difference.

Whereas photorealists were usually concerned to depict their subjects in near-photographic detail with no attempt at commentary, least of all political or social critique, hyperrealists like Hansen are quite unabashed at incorporating into their figures an element of social critique and commentary, often even at the expense of representational accuracy. Sometimes, in fact, Hansen’s figures perceptibly shade over into stereotype and even, arguably, sexism.  Furthermore, it is by no means altogether clear whether Hansen’s intent in these depictions is parody, satire, or even elitist arrogance.  That intent is entirely up to the viewer. Consider, for example, two of Hansen’s better-known works:  “Tourists” and “Housewife”.

Seriously, has anyone, anywhere ever actually seen tourists dressed as the two figures, presumably husband and wife, are dressed? I have not. Aloha shirts, yes. Sandals, yes. Cameras, yes. But multiple cameras? No. (I do not know, but I strongly suspect that “Tourists” was created before high-end cellphones with professional-quality photographic systems were available.) I have even heard tourists ask dumb questions. E.g., on my first visit to Washington, DC, I was exiting the Capitol after the usual tour, walking behind two fellow tourists, and heard the wife ask the husband “OK … we’ve seen the Senate and we’ve seen the House of Representatives … so when are we going to see the Congress?” Only the desire to avoid making a scene enabled me to refrain from banging my head against the wall, and thereby attracting the attention of a Capitol guard, as I walked out the East Front. But as to appearance, my two politically challenged fellow tourists looked pretty much as I did in jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, and carrying a little Instamatic camera.

I do not believe that Hansen, in “Tourists,” is guilty of classism – in this case, looking down his nose at actual tourists, but rather satirizing stereotypical tourists in his parody of typical Washington, DC – or anywhere else – sightseers. “Tourists” is vulnerable to this criticism only in an environment which is dominated by a sensibility already “pre-engineered” to take offense, and that is consequently unable to laugh at itself. “Tourists” is hyper-realism in the sense that Mad magazine, in its satirical treatment of popular culture in the 60s and 70s, was also hyper-realistic in its depiction of, e.g., advertising executives, popular culture (e.g., The Lone Ranger, Star Trek, and The X-Files), and with a similar intent to evoke laughter – in this case, laughter at ourselves – rather than rage. Unfortunately, hyper-realism, when employed satirically / parodically, can irritate our hyper-sensitive offense-prone culture.


Similar remarks apply to Hansen’s “Housewife,” if anything, even more pertinently. How are we to interpret his depiction of a slovenly housewife relaxing under a hair dryer with her feet resting on an ottoman and reading a magazine? Is this an instance of blatant sexism? I seriously doubt it. I believe the object of the parody is not housewifery, but, in some parts of the country, a certain outdated and obsolete conception of housewifery. As with “Tourists,” Hansen is satirizing / parodying us.  His work asks us “Is this seriously, really what we believe housewives do all day?”:  dry their hair, read cheap magazines, and smoke cigarettes? In particular, Hansen’s “Housewife” is an implicit but astringent critique of certain parts of feminism that see being “only” a housewife as unmitigated drudgery, a failure to pursue the vision of “having it all”. Again, and as with “Tourists,” the object of the satire is not the people / person being satirized, but the attitudes we bring to seeing them.

Woman Eating

A much gentler motif of Hansen’s work may be observed in works like “Woman Eating,” “Janitor,” and “Museum Guard”. These works evince a kind of quiet dignity and their uncanny realism invites us to look – to look at people eating, to look at janitors, to look at museum guards, all of whom are most often almost invisible to us.  Furthermore, the “hyper” in hyper-realism impels us to look closely and in detail. I am always fascinated when I encounter a work by Hansen, fascinated both by my own reaction and by the reactions of other museum-goers who encounter those works, it may be for the first time.

Invariably, we walk up to the figure – as closely as we can without setting off alarms – and examine the work as minutely as we can. One of the uncanny characteristics of Hansen’s work is what I will call scale invariance, i.e., no matter how closely you examine it, the work always looks as realistic up close as it does from a distance. I had an arresting experience of scale invariance once at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where, for the first time, I encountered Hansen’s “Charity Worker”:  a statue of a woman sitting at a table, reading (I think it was) a copy of Reader’s Digest, and waiting for people to drop coins in her collection can for – as I recall – the March of Dimes.

So I reached into my pocket, pulled out some loose change, and dropped it in the can. Only later, after examining other works in the same gallery, did I notice that the woman had never moved. After 15 minutes or so, I became concerned: maybe she had died on the job. So I went back to “Charity Worker” – and only then did I notice the placard on the wall that said “Charity Worker by Duane Hansen”. Scale invariance a la Duane Hansen deceives into noticing the previously un-notice-able, that which we previously considered – it may be literally – beneath notice. It shocks into paying attention.

In fact, that, perhaps, is the main contribution of hyper-realism, and Hansen's works in particular, to public discourse, not only about art, but about everything else: it impels us to pay attention. It impels us to pay attention, not below the surface, but at the surface. In fact, and in the case of Duane Hansen in particular, it subverts and deconstructs the distinction between "depth" and "surface". In our desire to delve beneath the surface and to the depths, we often miss details that are hidden in plain sight in our desire to be "deep," to do a "deep dive". So we look for the causes of, e.g., homeless people without seeing the homeless person in all their naked individuality. And not just the homeless, the indigent, and the marginalized, but many "mainstream" people. When was the last time you and I took a few minutes to talk to a museum guard? I do not recall ever having done so. Museum guards, janitors, etc., tend to be people we categorize as just part of the wallpaper of our social environment. Perhaps Duane Hansen's works invite us -- even shock us -- into taking time to look at the surface. In doing so, it suggests that perhaps we find the depths in the surface, not in spite of it.

It invites us -- even shocks us -- into not overlooking the obvious.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

"Woman Eating" … Mr. Gray … Public domain
"Museum Guard" … Rebecca Partington … CC BY-SA 2.0
"Housewife" … Regan Vercruysse … CC BY 2.0
"Janitor" … Christopher Paulin … CC BY 2.0
"Les demoiselles d'Avignon" … Gautier Poupeau … CC BY 2.0
"Nude Descending a Staircase" … Marcel Duchamp, Tim Evanson … CC BY 2.0
"Rocky Mountain Landscape" … Albert Bierstadt, White House … Public domain
"House Painter" … Eden, Janine and Jim … CC BY 2.0

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