“Old Couple on a Bench,” Duane Hansen, 1995, Palm Springs Art Museum


What is it that is so spooky about the “almost real”? the reflection just a little off, the color just a bit too bright, the archetype a tad too perfect. The works of Duane Hansen recall, of course, the earlier vogue for George Segal, whose white plaster bandage figures evoke an uncanny haunted feeling, as if you had stepped into an early George Romero film. That was the black-and-white of this genre.

I first ran into Hansen at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where his “Woman Eating” sits in the middle of a gallery, swarming with unpleasant habits — it’s easy to feel superior to her, to let her remind us of W. C. Williams’ adage that “the pure products of America go crazy.”

This 1995 work, “Old Couple on a Bench,” is better partly because of its surroundings. You can see these people in Palm Springs, even in the art museum where the work stands. The figures are lifelike because Hansen works from fiberglass casts. The museum moves the couple around: most photos show them against a concrete wall, but they now sit against a glass partition, as if fatigued by their viewing. Earlier in his career Hansen depicted more violent scenes: abortion, a motorcycle accident, race riots. With the 1971 “Woman Eating” he changed gears, creating figures real enough to touch but uncanny enough to prevent you from reaching out, in more open spaces that were semi-public. The essence of his work is your ambiguous position in these liminal zones. You waver.

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