While Mike Hansel’s early works were likely to appear in museums and galleries, today his large-scale outdoor metal sculptures increasingly populate public—and decidedly accessible—sites. “People will say, ‘Wow! What’s that made of?’ or ‘How’d you get that to bend that way?’ and come up to touch them,” says the Rhode Island-based artist. “I like to listen, anonymously, to the comments people make. It’s a great way to hear honest appraisals of the work.”
In fact, Hansel’s sculptures, constructed of durable metals such as stainless steel, aluminum, and Corten steel, actually invite curiosity. Some, like Reflex and All Cylinders, retain the spot welds and seams that lend insight into how they are assembled. Others, such as Loose Ends and Split Infinitive, inventively incorporate materials and forms that are elusively familiar to viewers. All of Hansel’s projects welcome the input of clients, architects, and community members who, he says, typically feel “sincere about wanting to improve their space.”
Hansel’s 2008 project Loose Ends takes public input to new levels. After being selected by university students at SUNY Fredonia, Hansel was tasked with designing and installing a permanent sculpture for their campus. Embarking upon a series of meetings with the students about how and where they imagined the piece, Hansel incorporated their input and feedback. “For me, it was like teaching,” he says of those meetings. “We really had a series of critiques.” Another of his works, Split Infinitive, sits outside the recently renovated wing of the building in Middletown, RI where Hansel teaches. He worked closely with the architect to ensure the work’s materials and forms would conform with the building’s aesthetic and even weather in a similar fashion. “I like pieces that work within a specific space or site, so I use materials and forms that complement the surroundings,” Hansel says.
Not everything about Hansel’s work is so straight-forward, however. In fact, at the heart of the artist’s vision exists a discord—what he calls an “irony”—that engages viewers with their complexity. While derived from utilitarian shapes and industrial materials, Hansel’s organic, abstract forms lend an element of surprise or even sometimes of discomfort. “I’m always searching for vaguely familiar forms,” he says of this objective. “I’ll start with a form that’s familiar to people, then I will begin to subtract things from it.” The effect is a tension between the expected and the unexpected: an enormous sprocket twisted just out of shape; a pile of HVAC-like tubing appearing to be walking off the lawn.
“People want to know what it is, to categorize it, put it in some place,” Hansel says. “Some people have a real problem with objects that have no function.” Therein lies the irony, he says. “What could be more ironic than a machine that has no function?”
Exemplifying this intention is Hansel’s 2017 work, Pechanga Innerchange, commissioned by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in Temecula, CA. Standing 10 feet high and six feet in diameter, at first glance the aluminum form suggests a mechanical application—an enormous gear part, perhaps, or an interchange engineered for a major highway. (One client was delighted with the renderings, recognizing the shape of feathers splayed from a headdress.) Belaying their industrial underpinnings, however, the final forms are twisted and distorted, incapable of serving any utilitarian purpose. As a result, Hansel says, they take on “a life of their own, like a metaphor for the thought process itself, the inner workings of the mind.” The tribe members embraced the abstraction.
At once familiar and exotic, accessible and challenging, Hansel’s works—far from lacking function—serve a reimagined purpose all their own. “It’s inspiring to touch some image or memory in a viewer,” he says of the effect of his works on others. “By placing large-scale sculpture in public spaces, I hope to provoke visual inquisitiveness in people that might not otherwise consider such things.”