March 06, 1978 12:00 PM

People like to people-watch, but they feel guilty,” says sculptor Duane Hanson, 53. “Here they can go up, stare at the wrinkles, the hair, the skin tone—something they wouldn’t dare to do normally.”

“Here” is Manhattan’s Whitney Museum, where Hanson’s eerie, lifelike sculptures are being shown. Made of vinyl/resin and fiberglass, they depict ordinary people—construction workers, shoppers, tourists, plumbers—with varicose veins, chest hair and even stains on their shoes. “An artist normally thinks of the ideal,” Hanson says, “but there’s also a beauty in seeing things as they are.”

Making things look that way is not easy. Hanson gets his inspiration from people in supermarkets, shopping malls and mobile home parks around his home in Davie, Fla. He lives there with his Danish-born wife, Wesla (a former Playboy bunny), and their children, aged 4 and 7. Each of his figures is cast from real life—often a friend or relative. Hanson lathers plaster and liquid rubber on the model’s body, and when the cast is removed it serves as a mold for the resin, which hardens like stone. The artist then paints the figure with oils and adds hair, often a mixture of real and synthetic. The clothes are either supplied by the models or bought in flea markets. “They should be taken off to be dry-cleaned every five or 10 years,” Hanson notes.

His work has attracted large crowds—19,000 showed up one day in Richmond, Va., and the line outside the museum in Kansas City could have been for Star Wars. The sculptures are not mere waxworks, Hanson insists. “I’m not duplicating life, but making a statement about human values. My work deals with people who lead lives of quiet desperation. I show the empty-headedness, the fatigue, aging, frustration. These people can’t keep up with the competition. They’re left out, psychologically handicapped.” Depressing? Well, maybe. “But there’s a sad truth to them,” he says. “Sad music, sad novels…the greatest art has been filled with melancholy.”

The son of a dairy farmer, Hanson grew up in Parkers Prairie, Minn. He spent seven years in Germany doing abstracts in wood, clay or stone. After an “unexceptional” show in Munich in 1958, he returned to the U.S. and changed his approach. While teaching at Miami-Dade Community College, he did a series of brutally realistic sculptures (Abortion, Riot, War, Gangland Victim). They horrified Florida critics and later brought him to the attention of Manhattan art dealer Ivan Karp, who set up Hanson’s first one-man New York show in 1970.

“I was reacting to the sociological terrors of the time,” Hanson says. His works since that time are in a lighter, though hardly jovial, vein. He plans series on couples, children and blacks and will be doing more members of his family. (He has three children, 18 to 25, by a previous wife.)

Hanson claims he does not intend to ridicule his subjects. “We have a lot of choices in America,” he says. “These are people who made the wrong ones. But they’re not gray and conformist as in European countries. They have vitality, energy and independence. They let it all hang out.”

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