THE WORK OF JAMES LEE HANSEN
A Mythology for the Pacific Northwest
“Hansen, James Lee. American, 1925--. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Hansen is one of the most talented of Pacific Northwest sculptors. His abstract work in metal reflects the influence of Chinese bronzes and totemic Indian sculpture.
Art Treasures in the West, 1966
Each generation seems to produce a few artists whose work is involved with an exploration of the mythological response of man to his environment, and these works have been given greater importance in recent years as psychology and anthropology have increased our awareness of how man uses symbols to communicate individual experiences.
For it seems to be true that the methods of achieving enlightenment are not applicable to group activity, and thus we are dependent upon a mythic symbology in order to record and communicate pertinent data.
And it is becoming increasingly true that in our thing-oriented culture we are most lacking a satisfactory manner in which to discuss that segment of reality labeled “mystic” or “visionary.”
One approach to the problem is to develop an iconography that indicates direction like a crossroads signpost.
The history of modern art and the milieu of our times have combined to produce no greater demand upon the artist than to respond to this challenging need for symbolic interpretation of relativistic reality.
James Lee Hansen was born in 1925 and graduated from the Portland Art Museum School in 1950. Thus his formative years embrace a period during which the concepts of psychological motivation gained popular acceptance. This was also a time of increasing awareness of the art of the Pacific Northwest Indian, and a period that saw the growth of public and private collections of Oriental art. As a student at the Portland Art Museum School, Hansen was aware of those events whose philosophy and imagery were to be germinal to his later works. At the same time he became interested in the problems of bronze casting which caused him to build his own studio-foundry in 1951.
Working in his own foundry increased his awareness of the materials and involved him in the medium of bronze. He became involved with the metal itself in a way that cannot be achieved by a sculptor who sends his wax off to be cast.
In 1952 he received a purchase prize from the San Francisco Art Association National Exhibition for “Huntress” and in the same year the Seattle Art Museum Northwest Annual awarded him a purchase prize for “The Call.”
“The Call” is the key piece of one of the two major series of images that Hansen has explored ever since. Here we find that the first “Guardian” image--in which evolved organic masses create a cohesive environment around a vertical axis, the whole suggesting a ceremonial watchfulness recalling mythological soldiery. Craft-object and organic relationships fuse to create a language of form.
Transcending the visual aesthetic, the ‘Guardian” series exhibits the “intensity of feeling compressed into rigid form” that Herbert Read labels “iconographic.” Behind the polished surface of sculptural technique is an indicator pointing to the archetypal realm.
The second group of works belongs to what Hansen calls the “Ritual Series.” These pieces with titles like “Ritual Study” and “Dawn Singer” are based on two vertical axes tied together by a horizontal and explore the relationships possible between two parallel but different forces, creating a series of bronze analogs to the dichotomies of existence.
The tensions of “day-night,” “male-female,” “good-evil,” “comedy-tragedy,” are externalized as “the space between things.”This series is represented by the bonze “The Ritual” purchased by San Francisco Art Association in 1960.
In the early sixties, Hansen produced two groups of small bronzes titled respectively “Littoral” and “Artifact” in both of which he explored the affinity for art in organic forms to which man responds with atavistic awareness. In the “Littoral” works he postulated the existence of a racial memory with its weight of accumulation of knowledge that sparks discovery.
These tideland, jellyfish, spermatoid shapes prefaced the concept “sculpture” to invoke the “coming from the sea” myths that eventually became the scientific dictum “ontology recapitulates phylogeny.”
In the “Artifacts” he attempted to create, not specific tools, but the essence of toolness—the affinity of shapes to use ability, which allowed us as a race to survive.
Hansen’s more recent works, the sophisticated Naga Series (in which he explores portions of previous themes expanded into a theme of its own--“Naga Spore, “ “Glyph Hatch”) and the continued exploration of the guardian motif (“Thole Guard,” “Naga Stand”) expand the dynamic integration of his theme of original cultural entities-the principal players in the first act of the human saga.
Of his latest work, “The Shaman” (an eight foot high, fourteen foot long bronze accepted by the Washington State Arts Commission for the State Highway Building in Olympia) Hansen says, “The Shaman posed the question ‘who and why are we?’ which set in motion the inexorable forces of civilization.
For civilization is the resultant echo of that question reverberating in the mind of all subsequent ages of man.” And if “civilization is the resultant echo” then the end is the beginning. The final casting is an image alluding to the mind path, and the poetry of the intensive emanates from the prose of the extensive to create an iconography for our generation.
Barbara E. Lane, Museum of Art - University of Oregon February - 1970