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Frame by Frame

‘Old Man Playing Solitaire’ by Duane Hanson

Colby College Museum of Art

WATERVILLE, Maine — How can such a fastidiously made, impeccably finished work of art function so like a rude burp?

“Old Man Playing Solitaire” is by Duane Hanson, a South Florida-based artist who died in 1996. Made in 1973 from polyester resin and fiberglass, painted in oil, and deftly accessorized, it is part of the Lunder Family Collection at Colby College Museum of Art. It occupies space in the recently spruced up galleries there much as an abandoned suitcase occupies space in a crowded airport terminal. An anomaly, at once familiar, and yet a magnet for dread.

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As an attention-getter, it utterly overwhelms all the less suspicious suitcases (or works of art) around it. Having spied it, you don’t quite know what to do about it. Should you call someone? Approach it? Or just stand there, staring?

Hanson specialized in these sculptural spectacles — trompe l’oeil renderings of disenfranchised, often overweight American “consumers,” who have the look of people from the lower end of the class spectrum. The sorts of people who might not necessarily frequent art museums.

But of course, just to say that is to articulate thoughts which right-thinking art lovers tend to skirt around, or find euphemisms for. And that’s just the point: Hanson’s art, which obviously carries a class charge, is strenuously literal. It banishes euphemisms. It is, in its way, as unapologetic — as “Here I am, and what are you going to do about it?” — as the mute bricks and boxes of his contemporaries, the Minimalists — artists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd.

Euphemisms are usually put in service to good taste. But since good taste is something Hanson tosses out the window from the outset, like a card-player clearing the table with a sudden sweep of the arm, his work, given time, becomes about something much more hair-raising than class or bigotry.

Look at this old guy long enough and you feel it in your bone marrow: He is a harbinger of that most euphemized and otherwise evaded truth, death. See him in his shabby clothes, his dirty blue socks, with his pipe, his spectacles, and his tea, absorbed in his game of solitaire.

He is not waiting for death, exactly. But death sure is what his life has in mind for him.

And for us.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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