Everyone makes an occasional jaunt to the uncanny valley, a term connoting the profound, atavistic fear we feel in the presence of robots that look and act like people: of objects flitting around in the vicinity of personhood. Though it’s been around since 1970, when it was coined by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the phrase has seen a noticeable surge in usage since 2000—the natural byproduct of humanity’s deep reckoning with the unstoppable rise of our android overlords.
The sculptor Duane Hanson lived deep in the Uncanny Valley. He bought a lot of property there. And he didn’t have to bother with robotics, either; he provoked our disturbed wonderment with earthier stuff: you know, like polyester resin, fiberglass, polychrome, oil paint. Hanson made eerily, maybe even virulently realistic sculptures of American Everymen and Everywomen. When he died, in 1996, he left behind a small army of joggers, tourists, cops, cafeteria-goers, and sunbathers, all seemingly straight out of Disney World in 1985, and daring you to call them fake. Your typical Hanson sculpture is jauntily dressed, with sagging flesh and a pouchy pallor around the eyes not unlike that of our president. As I’ve written before, his blue-collar men and women are often found in repose, loafing or catching their breath, vaguely bruised by the world around them. They’re both delicate and vulgar, walking a fine line between the avuncular and the repellent—tailor-made, it seems, to arouse our deepest class anxieties.
He claimed that his art was “not about fooling people”: “It’s the human attitudes I’m after—fatigue, a bit of frustration, rejection. To me, there is a kind of beauty in all this.” That claim is bolstered by an exhibition of Hanson’s Polaroids—his medium of choice for testing the accuracy of his simulations, seeing if they passed the smell test, maybe tweaking the arc of an eyebrow or the pivot of a foot—which opens tonight at Aperture Gallery. Seeing the photos gives you a sense of Hanson’s process, and the degree to which he prized a kind of verisimilitude that went far below the surface. Look at the four angles in Car Dealer, for instance, and you can see him fine-tuning the man’s ratio of desperation to blustery confidence: breathing life into a seedy stereotype. The beauty Hanson spoke of breaks through.
The woman in Sunbather, by contrast, is more or less a memento mori: everything about her aches of death, especially the grim set of her jaw, the stretch of her red lips. The Polaroids add another layer of intrigue to Hanson’s work—once you realize that the people in them are sculptures, a kind of artificiality contaminates the rest of the frame. If the woman isn’t real, why should the lawn chair be—or the grass, for that matter? In Self Portrait with Model, where Hanson, cozy in flannel, sits across from one of his undressed sculptures, the question of verisimilitude is finally too much to take; I can’t look at the picture for long without shrinking from it. The effect is enduring cognitive dissonance: another avalanche descends upon the uncanny valley.
All images © Estate of Duane Hanson
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.