The notion of what is iconically American may change over time, but two seemingly timeless American icons, actual superheroes made popular by decades at the top of popular culture in comic books, on television shows and feature films, are the leaders of the infamous Justice League — Superman and Wonder Woman. But the intriguing exhibition, “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder,” on view at Addison Gallery of American Art through January 5, invites us to consider and then reconsider these favorites through modern and varied lenses.
Organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the exhibition showcases 70-plus paintings, photographs, mixed media, interactive, film/video and 3D works by artists varying in age, race and country of origin.
Superman was first seen in comics in 1938 as an alien who draws power from the sun. In addition to the highest strength, speed and stamina, the “Man of Steel” has X-ray and heat vision, is invulnerable to injury, can hypnotize anyone and can wipe out a person’s memory, all while defeating evil, protecting those in need and maintaining his ordinary Clark Kent alter-ego by day. He is the most well-known superhero of all time.
Wonder Woman first came on the scene in DC Comics in 1941, a Themysciran Amazonian princess, created by her mother out of a pile of clay. Her superpowers include superior strength, flight, emotional intelligence and the ability to speak many languages. She dons the “Lasso of Truth,” a tiara and bulletproof bracelets, and embodies the best historically female values possible — empathy, kindness and nurturing.
At their hearts — superheroes are selfless, always do the right thing and often literally carry the weight of the world on their shoulders — touting “truth, justice and the American way.” They defeat many a villain, often seem indestructible and are beloved by child and adult alike. Superman and Wonder Woman were created in America out of the Great Depression and World War II — as society was amidst great change — and depict strong men, iron workers and women coming into the workforce.
This exhibition looks at the influence Superman and Wonder Woman and American superheroes in general have had in our culture, and some of the artists challenge those iconic images, meanings and even “the American Way.”
For example, in Peter Saul’s “Superman Versus the Toilet Duck,” 1963, oil on canvas — he depicts Superman with a dollar sign insignia on his chest instead of the trademark “S,” looking at the marketability of the character, portrayed as unheroic. Similarly, Michael Ray Charles’ “You Need a And You Know It (Forever Free),” 1994, acrylic latex, oil wash and copper penny on paper, “blends Superman’s symbolic commitment to American freedom with references to blackface and minstrel characters, demeaning caricatures historically used in entertainment and also to sell products. Charles uses offensive and stereotypical imagery in much of his work to call into question present day injustices towards African Americans.”
Fahamu Pecou’s “Nunna My Heros: After Barkley Hendricks’ ‘Icon for My Man Superman,’” 2011, acrylic, gold leaf, oil stick on canvas, shows a black man depicting himself as Superman, donning an F on his chest. This speaks to the overall whitewashing of American comics and superheroes, most of whom to this day are white. “In the Black community,” Pecou states, in the accompanying text, “where issues like oppression, poverty, violence and other traumas persist, Superman’s nonappearance is glaring. My character subverts the Superman ideal by becoming his hero.”
Jason Bard Yarmosky’s painting, “Wintered Fields,” 2016, oil on canvas, is of his grandmother. “My grandmother was a wonder woman to me,” he shares of his work. “Her heroic battle with Alzheimer’s disease left her vulnerable. In my work ‘Wintered Fields,’I wanted to contrast her age and predicament with this symbolic costume to show both the heroism and vulnerability of the human condition.” Yarmosky also comments that “Our culture loves superheroes, godlike figures that we tend to put on pedestals. We celebrate these iconic symbols impervious to harm. What we often overlook is another important dimension to their character — their vulnerability, a quality that makes us truly human.”