Arts » Visual Art

Look! Up on the Wall!

The age of the superhero is over -- unless you're in the mood for a little therapy.

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Superheroes perform feats of dexterity and strength with such apparent ease that their exploits are sometimes more than a mite boring. Superman always seems to appear just in time to catch the robber with the loot; Michael Jordan missed the occasional jump shot--but rarely in crunch time. By contrast, Gilligan, a modern superhero in everything but name, always found a way to successfully mess up the latest attempt to get off the island.

The artists in the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art's Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: Superheroes in Contemporary Art use the repetition and uniformity associated with American idols to their advantage: after all, they want to throw a monkey wrench into the smoothly operating pop-culture machine. Given a choice of fantasies, many of them actually seem to prefer the subversive bumblings of a '60s Yber-goober like Gilligan to the canned perfection of a '30s Clark Kent.

That's all well and good, but once the debunking is over, leaping tall buildings in a single bound becomes a bit difficult. It's really a no-win situation--a clay-footed superhero can't do the job we want him to do; yet, when he is perfect, we find him irksome. All the artists in this exhibit grapple with this dilemma, some with humor, others with deadpan seriousness (though the two are sometimes indistinguishable). The main point is a sobering one, though: Bringing cultural icons down to size might be more trouble than it's worth; what will you have left when the day is done? Might as well have Clark Kent battle the Lex Luthors of the world with his toothbrush.

Mel Ramos holds forth one possibility in his 1961 oil painting "Superman." A pop artist known for his glossy images of naked women posing in front of cigarette logos or atop cubes of Jell-O, Ramos gives us a square-jawed Superman in profile. But his garish colors and prominent brushstrokes (which result in smeary globules of paint) are reminiscent of the snack cakes regularly found in Spice Girls lunchboxes. Ramos's Superman belongs on a layer cake--and a none-too-subtle connection between superheroes and mass consumption is suggested. When a superhero looks suspiciously like the work of a master cake decorator, he's not exactly being held out as a paradigm for human excellence. What's more, his admirers are being singled out for a satirical sucker punch.

Landing a few blows of his own is Andy Warhol, whose lone entry in this exhibit, "Superman (from the series Myths)," takes a tack similar to that employed in his Campbell's soup can works. Warhol wasn't as interested in the company's logo as he was in the fact that Campbell's was the soup he had for lunch every day. And he's not as interested in the Superman image as he is in making Metropolis's number-one son a symbol for the repetition and monotony to be found in all spheres of modern life.

Boasting an equally large dose of anarchical humor is a 1994 video installation by Emily Breer. This video combines existential musings on the role of superheroes in this culture, absurdist animation worthy of Terry Gilliam, and frenetic cuts that suggest Breer can't wait to get to the next visual pun. This is inspired zaniness, and one suspects that it would also work well as a short subject preceding an independent film. "Don't let 'em fool you. Superheroes are just like ordinary people," we're being told. And we'd believe it, if not for the deliberately surreal atmosphere of this piece.

Breer's video begins with the opening strains of the theme to TV's The Munsters, and the endearingly inept superhero in this video is not unlike Herman Munster: strong enough to punch out an adversary, yet also prone to tantrums, baby talk, and self-doubt. He's so vulnerable that you wonder whether he can leap over a tall building in a dozen bounds--and whether he'll break a leg in the process.

There are pieces in Faster Than a Speeding Bullet content merely to celebrate superhero prowess without offering wry commentary on the implications. These works put the focus on the heroes themselves, as opposed to what the artist is doing with them. For instance, Jason Salavon's "Hero Town 1#1" uses digital imaging software to reference a simpler time, when heroes might actually have been modest enough to assemble for an enormous group portrait. A real organizational feat, that. And doubly impressive, because in Salavon's work, ego clashes are nowhere in sight.

Local artist Christa Donner, a recent graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, returns to the superhero as a source of strength in a world that seems about to careen into disaster. In mixed-media works on paper, Donner combines images of human internal organs, female superheroes, and, finally, arrows and numbers which seem to point the way to a chronological or linear reading of the work. In the 1998 work "Untitled (Saving Sue X2)," Donner affixes the Superman logo to an outfit worn by a heroine who looks more like TV's Bionic Woman. Donner then draws an arrow from the logo to a separate image of a heart. She appears to be suggesting that female superheroes draw strength from within, as opposed to their male counterparts, who rely on physical ability. The impact of this work is largely conceptual, yet the clever combination of found images with unromanticized renderings of internal organs satisfies on a visual level. Donner also cleverly exploits empty spaces; it's good to see a young artist who allows a work to breathe and refuses to crowd it with unnecessary detail.

Superheroes--Superman in particular--get decidedly less respectful treatment in Roger Shimomura's "After the Movies, No. 2," a 1994 acrylic on canvas, which appears to show the man of steel having sex with a Japanese maiden (who in turn seems to have migrated into this work directly from an eighteenth-century woodblock print). The intimacies take place on the other side of a closed window, and Shimomura, by emphasizing the repetitious brick pattern on the exterior of the building, injects a touch of rancid voyeurism. It's a disturbing work, because one is forced to confront the question of Superman's private life. What does he do after he saves Metropolis yet again? Mutate immediately back into Clark Kent? Grab a Whopper and fries at Burger King? See his eighteenth-century Japanese girlfriend?

In the end, most of the artists in Faster Than a Speeding Bullet have come neither to bury nor to praise Superman. With the exception of Donner and Salavon, they just want to take a few pops at him. They do acknowledge the role of the superhero in American pop culture, and they do care about how they, as artists, can comment on pop culture. Still, you end up with a prevailing sense of where Superman and his ilk stand at the end of the millennium--and it's not a pretty picture.

Used to be that, when the bespectacled journalist went into the phone booth, donned his red cape and blue tights, and forsook all connection with sheepish Clark Kent, he became steely and self-confident. Today it seems that Superman, though not as goofy as Gilligan, is considerably less than Super, and all too clearly a human being.

With friends like these, who needs Kryptonite?

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: Superheroes in Contemporary Art, through May 2 at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Avenue, 216-421-8671.

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