New York

Duane Hanson, William Stewart, and Yehuda Ben-Yehuda

O.K. Harris Gallery

Three artists working from different sources and backgrounds have populated the O.K. Harris Gallery downtown with a grisly assortment of human tableaux and animal viscera which are sometimes as startling as they are studied in their effects. Duane Hanson is a Minnesotan who had worked on his figure groups for about four years in Florida before coming to New York; William Stewart is a Texan who recently turned from some film-making to his current preoccupation with animal/ material constructions; and Yehuda. Ben-Yehuda is an Israeli who has done stage design and kinetic scenery, splitting his time between New York and Tel Aviv to work on sculpture. Walking out of the gallery, one had the acute sensation of having just left—all at once—a peculiarly petrified happening, a blood bath which dried-up in mid-stream, or a wax museum gone somewhat awry. You may need some guts, or else a good calm sense of the surreal to get into this work completely. One might consider it either as the figurative-sculptural retort to some of the casualness and random materiality of “process art,” or as a parallel to a few of the compositional and spatial dilemmas of more orthodox current figure painting. What is most disappointing is that none of the artists seem to be interested in dealing with the full environmental implications and ramifications of his work—a fact which may account for my own sense of isolation in dealing with these pieces.

Hanson is surely the most literary, with his interest in creating symbolic-realistic scenes and incidents out of single or multiple arrangements of fiberglass casts made from real people and clothed authentically, then set within limited fields of subsidiary paraphernalia. The range of subjects includes a Motorcycle Accident, Bowery Bums, Vietnamese Soldiers dead and wounded, a chained and quartered Mafia Victim, a Chicago Riot Scene, and a Football tackle vignette. All are themes of violence—individual, societal, or cultural. I found this work least stimulating, since its stiffness and narrative, propagandist aspects were difficult to overcome, even though Hanson works very hard at getting one down to the nitty gritty, with his bloodied dusty soldiers, the (oh so) attentively gored motorcycle and Mafia victims, or with the pathetic lolling bums (the most recent and most naturalistic of the group), bunched amid actual West Broadway garbage and litter! They are certainly more convincing than anything witnessed in a wax museum (with its formalized stances and funky dioramas, which of course bear no particular artistic comparison), and yet that’s not saying much, because Hanson’s pieces lack even the pungency of affect which the standard “live” wax figure also aims to project. The peculiar contradiction which results is that Hanson is trying to bring the deathly, grim, threatening elements of accidents, war, rough sports, or dereliction to a plastic life which is somehow obviated by the calcified theatrical literariness of his conceptions.

Ben-Yehuda falls somewhere between Hanson and Stewart with his major piece, a huge heap of foam-stuffed grey latex corpses (hollow transfer casts of plastered models, painted a chalky blackish color). His less interesting work consists of single female casts, or of pairs of red and white latex couples, and female bodies and body parts in a whitish rubber, reclining on a catafalque-like base. The pile of hundreds of limp “corpses” has a far greater overall psychic effect than any of the single, smaller groups (though Ben-Yehuda claims to have no specific or intentional references here to the gas chambers and crematoria of World War II Germany). The generalized matter of this pile of body-remains, body-shells, or flailing forms becomes the most powerful image factor, though one never loses sight of the very individualized features of each cast, even as they are so casually piled onto that writhing mass of replicated humanity.

Stewart’s piece, wedged uncomfortably into a partitioned area of the gallery, originates with big cowlike animals suspended from ropes, which are made out of cotton, industrial refuse and glue on a chicken wire and latex base. But the animal forms quickly spill over into fluffy, bloody heaps, as if the animals had just been disemboweled at the slaughterhouse. Piles of charred, coagulated “viscera” trail across the floor around and in front of them, so that the actual thematic focus of the maimed animals gets somewhat subdued or obscured in the sheer materiality of the tumbles of cottony, strewn “guts.” In this respect Stewart seems to move away from the excessive dramatic dangers of subject matter (which plague the work of both Hanson and Ben-Yehuda) somewhat more successfully. He plunges the viewer into a disintegrative process which begins with already partly dismembered forms and ends with masses of an altered, almost abstract substance.

What mars all of this work for me is its self-conscious creation of revolting spectacles or of unsettling effects which never quite make it at the level intended. I felt that I was kept at such a participatory remove—although the materials often seemed to call for some degree of spectator circulation or somatic involvement—that I was reminded of the stiff theatricality of 19th-century tableaux vivants, rather than overwhelmed by the, gut-gripping formal and figural personifications most of these pieces aimed to embody.

Emily Wasserman