New York’s Driscoll Babcock Gallery recently held the art world’s version of Comic Con. Superman and Wonder Woman were on display, while The Caped Crusader and his pal Robin were also represented, as well as some faces that might be less familiar to you, such as an Indian sci-fi superheroine and a black vigilante named N-Word. The show was called Secret Identities: Superheroes and Selfhood, and each of the show’s seven artists used the superhero motif to shed a light on race, gender, or sexuality. With the latest Fantastic Four movie currently tanking at the box office, it seems the perfect time for a more inclusive representation of what it means to be a hero.
We’ve previously seen photos of a baby in a Wonder Woman costume, but Jason Bard Yarmosky cast Elaine, his eighty-seven year old grandmother, in the Lynda Carter role for his painting Whispering Grass. His grandmother suffers from dementia, and while it’s evident from the painting that Elaine is in the final stages of her life it’s also clear that the artist really does view her as a superhero.
Yarmosky’s work feels sad, but the three paintings of Peter Williams are angry. The series Common and Proper Nouns depict N-Word, a black superhero who saves citizens from the police. The series was painted last winter in response to the many, many instances of black men being assaulted and killed by officers across the country. With his American flag cape, N-Word makes the viewer question prevailing notions of power and patriotism.
Batman is there, at least in spirit, in the hand-knit acrylic costumes of Mark Newport. Suspended from the ceiling, the Caped Crusader’s deflated get-up seems more tragic than super. Meanwhile, Caroline Wells Chandler takes a stab at Robin in a six-foot wide crocheted piece entitled The Boi Wonder (below). With double mastectomy scars and a rainbow between his legs, this Robin was inspired by the intense pressure put on trans bodies by curious outsiders.
Other work in the show includes Katherine Bradford’s Superman painting, the large-scale portrait work of Nathaniel Mary Quinn, and the vibrant work of Chitra Ganesh, who digitally collages her own drawings with fragments of Indian comic books from the 1960s. Ganesh’s work is especially compelling visually, with its bright colors and comic book aesthetic.
By casting marginalized bodies in the roles of superheroes, these artists collectively make viewers questions their expectations. While it’s not unheard of to see a gay X-Men or even a Japanese Spiderman, mainstream comic and movie cultures don’t allow for a lot of variety. At the same time, the very notion of superheroes is questioned when the good guys are fighting against the police and even our own grandmothers can be wonder women.
The show ran through Friday, August 14 at Driscoll Babcock Galleries (525 West 25th Street, New York)
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