Uncanny Art for the Post-Truth Era

THIS PAST SUMMER, a naked man was suspended from the wall of Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois in Paris, his arms spread-eagle, resembling something between a crucified person and a cadaver. Onlookers couldn’t help but wince. One aghast couple seemed to turn their heads away. But like the dangling body, they, too, were unclothed sculptures — lifeless yet eerily lifelike.

The work was from “Grace,” an exhibition by the American sculptor John DeAndrea, who at 81 has been making human doppelgängers like these in a studio near the Rocky Mountains for almost six decades. His monthslong process involves first putting live models in silicone rubber molds, which are cured and then built up with layers of plaster. This negative mold is then filled with fortified plaster, which is cured, perfected and eventually recast in bronze. Finally, DeAndrea meticulously applies layers of opaque and transparent oil paints to the skin and eyes and adds hair until everything looks creepily authentic.

Art critics have come up with various terms for work like DeAndrea’s, including hyperrealism, although DeAndrea notably has said he doesn’t consider himself an artist. Perhaps a better name for it comes from Sigmund Freud. In response to a 1906 essay by the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch, who wrote of the discomfort that arises when the viewer “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate,” Freud expanded on the concept of the uncanny. It’s the place where art and life converge and briefly become muddled, in a way that’s confusing and uncomfortable.

Erwin Wurm’s “Truck II” (2011), in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg.Credit…Lukas Roth

Why do artists keep returning to the uncanny, which Freud placed into “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”? The hyperreal would seem to represent a very modern state of uncertainty: What is that thing? How can it look both recognizable and foreign at the same time? It’s an aesthetic that tends to return at particularly unstable moments in history. Freud wrote about the uncanny in 1919, months after the end of World War I, which had left millions dead and Europe in ruins. DeAndrea — who says his work “ain’t dark” to him — in the mid-1960s began experimenting with casting techniques that would allow him to accurately represent the human body, though he was probably less concerned with the Vietnam War than with the narcissism of what the author Tom Wolfe would later describe as the Me Generation. Other hyperrealists, most notably DeAndrea’s contemporary Duane Hanson, were more overtly political. Hanson didn’t shy away from the war in Vietnam or American racism — his 1969 “Vietnam Scene” depicts dead and wounded U.S. soldiers lying on the floor — though he’s best remembered for his fiberglass-and-polyester-resin sculptures of tourists in southern Florida.

Each subsequent decade has gotten the hyperrealist sculpture it deserves. Right now we’re living in a moment defined by an erosion of trust in what is and isn’t real — whether that’s a former president’s election fraud claims or the proliferation of deepfakes and artificial intelligence software. The uncanny valley has transformed from a horror film trope — in movies from Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982) to the unsettlingly human robot in “M3gan” (2023) — into a more quotidian concern, as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos propose a fleet of humanoid robots to address the U.S. labor shortage. It’s possible that hyperrealist art has never felt as topical, or as chilling, as it does today, and advancements in technology have also rendered the style more real than it’s ever been.

Patricia Piccinini’s “The Young Family” (2002).Credit…Courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco

OVER TIME, HYPERREALISM incorporated elements of extreme exaggeration, which only seemed to heighten the shock of the uncanny. That effect is palpable in, for instance, the Australian artist Ron Mueck’s gargantuan child made of glass fiber, “Boy” (1999): Installed in the ARoS museum in Aarhus, Denmark, the child is nearly 15 feet tall, even crouched in an almost fetal position, and all his details are rendered with excruciating precision.

The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, a master of discomfort, has contributed to the hyperrealist tradition for more than 20 years. His funny and disturbing “La Nona Ora” (1999) shows Pope John Paul II in his papal regalia, writhing in pain on the ground after being struck down by a small meteor. The pope retains an odd dignity, still clutching a staff with a crucifix on it, as if that might help him through this encounter. Two years later, Cattelan made “Him,” a dreadfully realistic sculpture of Adolf Hitler, kneeling like an altar boy, hands clasped as if in prayer. As in the work centering the pope, it’s the absurdity of the contrast — between evil and innocence — that’s so effective and obscene. “It is a fake until proven otherwise,” explained Cattelan of his installations of this nature.

Maurizio Cattelan’s “Novecento” (1997), installed at the Monnaie de Paris.Credit…Photo: Zeno Zotti. Courtesy of Maurizio Cattelan’s Archive

Many works of hyperrealism call on old traditions of mimesis, among them anatomical wax models based on real carcasses, a technique dating to the 18th century. Lately, though, new technology has made hyperrealism easier for humans to achieve, while simultaneously complicating the practice. The Australian visual artist Patricia Piccinini, 57, has been making anthropomorphic chimeras out of silicone, fiberglass, leather and human hair for the past two decades: a grotesque porcine creature, its brood suckling at its teats (2002’s “The Young Family”); a bearlike man who could pass for a shaved Bigfoot (2012’s “The Carrier”). Recently, however, she had a disconcerting encounter of her own when she came across images of artworks online that appeared to be attributed to her. “It had my name on it, but it wasn’t me,” the artist said. It was the product of an A.I. art generator — one that used randomized machine learning to mimic her reimaginations. “What I saw looked like it had been made by someone who had only been told about my work by someone who didn’t understand it,” she said.

It’s a worrying development for any artist, but also one that has made human-engineered hyperrealism even more relevant — us versus the machines. In 2011, the Austrian-born sculptor Erwin Wurm, 69, modified a red Mercedes-Benz MB100D van so that its rear half curved up the side of a wall. When it was installed four years later outside of the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, a traffic warden gave it a parking ticket. Wurm says that we live in an age when our brains are constantly trying to make sense of what we see. “Is it nature or is it copying nature?” he asked. “You think it’s nature, but then you realize, ‘Wait a moment, it’s not. It’s something else.’ ”

With his series of “One Minute Sculptures,” begun in 1988, Wurm has taken hyperrealism to its inevitable extreme: He’s turned actual people into bizarre and improbable sculptures. He directs strangers to participate in seemingly impossible scenes — in which office supplies protrude out of orifices, or a forehead is attached to a leaning tower of oranges — instructing them to pose for 60 seconds or less as he photographs them.

“Reality is totally insane, we have to compete with it,” said Wurm. That, ultimately, is why such art matters: By jolting us out of our usual perspective, it makes us question what we may be overlooking every day. “I see the world going in a strange direction,” Wurm added, “and I’m scared for the future.”

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