Past Collection Highlight - Stephen Hansen

Stephen Hansen But is it art?

Since beginning to sell his work as a teenager, Stephen Hansen has experienced no shortage of enthusiastic collectors. However, his whimsical papier maché sculptures have caused critics-and even Hansen, himself-to question "but, is it art?". Doesn't fine art employ precious pigments, marble, and bronze to wrestle with complex and serious subjects?

For a time, Hansen painted in a style he described as "realistic and morbid" but eventually decided that "serious" didn't have to mean "sombre," and he returned to papier maché. He characterizes his work as "distilled observations" of the world around him, creating visual puns that gently lampoon human foibles, social conventions, and turns of phrase. Hansen feels that "You can address serious concerns and actually get people to consider them if you present them in an amiable sort of way."

In "But, Is It Art?", Hansen stirs up a historically contentious dialog between critics and contemporary artists who challenge the conventions of composition, material, style, and content. And then Hansen places the debate in the mouth of a painter on his coffee break. A jovial workman in brightly spattered painter's whites perches atop a canvas. The title makes audible a fragment of philosophical coffee-break chatter. Meanwhile, his colleague finishes rolling on the cheery, primary-colored rectangles that parody the oversized, abstract paintings of Mark Rothko. Now accepted as an American master, Rothko defended his enigmatic work against critics in the 1940s, asserting its "tragic and timeless" subject matter. Hansen's drolly narrative sculpture is, in contrast, easily accessible and far from "tragic." However, the question "Is it art?" may well be timeless. Hansen invites viewers to be skeptical of the artificial distinctions between "high" and "low" art. If he's satirizing the arguments of critics, Hansen is razzing the artist, too. "I also recognize the fact that I'm participating in all of the absurdities around me."

As usual, Hansen poses a question, leaving the answers to the judgment of the viewer. But maybe we should take a break from the analysis of his papier maché creations and just lighten up. Afterall, "It is difficult to be pretentious, the most common pitfall of contemporary art, in a material so inherently silly."

Hansen's work can be seen at the new Kalamazoo airport terminal and in the KIA's upcoming exhibition, Off the Wall: Art in Three Dimensions.

Karla Niehus
Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions