This Artist Turned a Childhood Love of ‘Popeye’ Villain Bluto Into a Hit Exhibit Among NYC’s Gay Men
There’s an exhibit capturing the attention of gay guys in New York City, and for many men it has brought with it a flood of adolescent fever dreams. Two Years of Bluto, an exhibit featuring work by artist Erik Hanson, has filled the Chelsea gallery space Marlborough Contemporary with more than 100 paintings of famed Popeye villain Bluto, a character that comes with baggage: specifically airs of masculinity, eroticism and the power of childhood attachment.
Created in 1932 by Elzie Crisler Segar, the Popeye villain Bluto was intended to make a one-time appearance. (He was initially referred to as “Bluto the Terrible” in the comic strip that was eventually renamed Popeye.) The very next year he became the main antagonist of Popeye, a sailor who gains strength from choking down spinach, in the character’s same-named cartoon series.
While there’s not much continuity between the various Popeye projects (in addition to the comic strip and cartoon, Robin Williams played Popeye in a 1980 Robert Altman-directed film), the Popeye villain Bluto has always been portrayed as a hulking, brutish, bearded bully with a bad attitude. His voice is deep — nearly a growl — and he has a fondness for kidnapping Popeye’s love interest, Olive Oyl.
Given his physical appearance and ‘bad guy’ role, queer boys of a certain generation naturally fawned over Bluto, and for many the character was an early glimpse at what now know to be ‘toxic masculinity’ tropes.
In addition to sparking the interest of local gay New Yorkers, Hanson’s exhibit dedicated to the Popeye villain Bluto has sparked an academic conversation between two professors, Ramzi Fawaz and David J. Getsy. Read that entire convo, which deals with the Bluto character’s and the exhibit’s own significance, here, and check out this excerpt by Fawaz:
In these paintings, Hanson puts his finger on a sort of melancholic attachment that both gay men and the society at large have to the figure of hyper-masculinity — that ideal that both magnetizes our desire and constantly hurts us, reminding us we are never enough (never big enough, powerful enough, strong enough to be “real” men or desirable to those men who seemingly fit the ideal).
We (both the particular subculture of gay men, but also a patriarchal culture as a whole) “love” men — some of us pursue them erotically, others symbolically or behaviorally worship at their imputed power — but that love is often exactly what undermines our own self-image, promotes rigid gender norms, and reproduces patriarchy.
Part of the brilliance of these pieces, to my mind, is that they capture both what is so erotically appealing about Bluto — his baldly brutish masculinity — but also what is so tragic about his version of manliness, while never feeling sorry for, or making Bluto into a martyr.
Hornet sat down with Erik Hanson to discuss his new exhibit, dedicated to Popeye villain Bluto, and the reaction his paintings have received from New Yorkers who have stopped by to admire his work. On Saturday, March 23 — the final day of the exhibition — Erik Hanson says he’ll be doing a walk-through in the gallery space.
Tell me about the character’s significance to you as a child and how that significance has changed.
When I was a little kid I had a crush on Bluto. I loved watching the cartoon. In 2017 I decided to give myself complete freedom to do whatever I felt like doing in the studio, with no goal in mind. So one day my friend Scooter LaForge sent me an image of a Bluto toy, and I painted it. That kind of opened the floodgates and got me thinking about my feelings that I had towards him as a little kid.
And then going back and watching more of the cartoons, just to get more material, made me understand the character a little bit better. He’s actually not the bad guy. He’s a carnival ‘strong man,’ so he spends a lot of time at the gym working out, and when he’s done he puts on a skimpy bikini and goes to Muscle Beach and grins, proud of his hard work.
Queer men are likely to have a different reaction to your exhibit than most hetero people. Is that intentional, and is that something you’ve noticed?
Well, every single artist has only one subject matter: himself. I found that a lot of people respond to these paintings who don’t even know who Bluto is!
A lot of people don’t know a thing about the subject matter, but they can just tell I’m engaged with the subject and the materials, and that’s what they respond to. My goal here was to make some kick-ass paintings and also teach myself how to paint, as I never went to art school.
What kind of reactions have you gotten to the Two Years of Bluto exhibit?
The responses have been through the roof and over-the-top. So many gay guys have gone [as a] kind of pilgrimage, and so many people just enjoy the room because they can tell how engaged I am and that I made some really good paintings.
What’s in store for the “Bluto collection,” and what are you working on next?
Well, a fair number of them sold to individual collectors. A lot of people got pairs, and a large grouping is going out to L.A. for the Project Angel Food benefit auction in May. One is going to the Bronx Museum benefit auction happening next month.
I don’t think I’m done with the project yet. I can’t wait to get back into the studio and paint more Bluti.
For more info on Two Years of Bluto head to Erik Hanson’s blog or the Marlborough Contemporary site. The exhibit runs through Saturday, March 23.
All images courtesy of Erik Hanson