The concept of "hyper realism" can be traced back to a group of painters in the late 1960's and the early 1970's who were referred to as "photo realists," making paintings look so real as to seem to be photographs. Around the same time, a sculptor named Duane Hanson began making hyper realist sculptures, which were cast from actual people. The sculptures were made with polyester resin reinforced with fiberglass, and painted to make the skin look realistic with veins and blemishes. Hanson then clothed the figures with garments from second-hand clothing stores and displayed them in gallery exhibitions. These sculptures have inspired a new generation of artists, as was evidenced at the 2011 Armory Show, an art fair which featured artists and galleries from around the world in New York City.
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The first hyper realist sculpture that we saw at the Armory Show was this piece by American artist Carole Feuerman, seen below. The sculpture was small, perhaps not much bigger than approximately 10 inches tall and 20 inches wide (our post-exhibition estimate from memory), but the level of realism was extraordinary. There were hair-like eyelashes and realistic looking drops of water (they even looked wet) on the surface of the figure and the inner tube. Even though it was smaller than life-size, it was so realistic that it was impossible to not be drawn in close to see all of the details.
The next realist sculpture by Elizabeth King was again a smaller-than-life depiction of a woman, but again very life-like representation. There wasn't any confusion about the surface being skin, as the bronze made it clear that this was a sculpture. But quite captivating, it also brought one in closer to examine the details. The sculpture (by an unknown artist) on the right, while very realistic, was more of a gag-humor piece. Perhaps it was the artist's playful way to poke fun at the fact that a high-end bag manufacturer, Fendi, has made bags out of skunk fur ... and this guy thinks he can escape getting skinned by hiding in a Chanel bag ... could that be the message?
Continuing along the lines of realistic animal sculptures, this next piece by Berlinde de Bruyckere was part brutal, part mystifying, and part gruesome. As you can see, it appears to be a dead animal on the edge of a table ... but upon closer examination, it's not really clear what animal this is supposed to be. Too small to be a horse, not exactly looking like a deer, perhaps a combination of various animals, it's all very mysterious yet repelling at the same time. The artist actually makes the body as a wax sculpture and then covers it with animal fur, so the fact that the body is sculpted would allow for such an ambiguous animal since it is not, and never was real. The other unrealistic aspect of this piece is the way the animal is positioned - if this were a real animal, its weight would either tip the table over, or it would slide off the edge. The fact that it can rest this far over the edge brings a surrealist quality to it.
Continuing on through the Armory Show, we come across this odd looking man peeking around the corner of a gallery booth wall. There's a crowd standing around him, and now we see why - it's another hyper-realist sculpture, a real attention grabber, this guy. It's a sculpture by American artist Marc Sijan. This guy is also smaller-than-life, but just barely ... standing on this chair and peering around the corner, he grabs the viewer's attention from quite a distance. Sijan's method is that he works from live models, producing a negative mold in plaster. Then, he casts the figure in a polyester resin. To achieve realistic flesh tones, Sijan applies 25 coats of paint and then adds varnish and oil paint to gain his perfect life-likenesses.
This last one is also by Marc Sijan, but is a clear homage to hyper-realist sculpture pioneer Duane Hanson (1925-1996), who created his security guard sculpture (bottom right) in 1975. Even though we "knew" it was a sculpture, it was so real that we approached with great caution, and even getting close enough to take the middle photograph below, we were on alert and ready to react if by chance this was a real person! It was that convincing!