What is it about a mask, belt and cape that so inspires our collective imagination? Is it the mystery of transformation that is so entrancing? Or that a human in a spandex onesie can save us from all the cackling evil that abounds in the world?
These are some of the questions posed by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' new exhibit, "Superheroes and Secret Identities," currently on display in Ketchum. The exhibit is one part of the SVCA's multi-disciplinary focus on superheroes that included a costumed opening party, graphic novel workshops, a knitting bee, a film festival and a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (stay tuned for a review).
"Superheroes and Secret Identities" features the work of three artists who explore the concept of the all-powerful "other" in three starkly different contexts. After staff at the SVCA began observing an increase in the depiction of superheroes in popular culture, they decided to take a closer look at not only how superheroes and secret identities help express human fantasy, but also how they help combat fear of the unknown.
"There were a couple of things going on that were of interest to us. One was that there were all these superhero movies coming out. So we were interested in what's driving this need for superheroes," explains Courtney Gilbert, curator of visual arts. "And we also were interested in the Internet and the way that people go on to the Internet and they take on other identities and they can also take on superpowers."
The exhibit combines contemporary art with a display of vintage comic books from the Golden Age of comics—beginning with the introduction of Superman in 1938—to the Silver Age, which stretched into the early '70s. The covers show everything from Superman busting through chains, cape aflutter in issue No. 11, to Hitler screaming from a podium as Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos bust in to kick some Nazi butt.
"As we did research, we realized that these superheroes appeared at a time when the U.S. was about to enter a war and tensions were high in Europe. Then they became vehicles for patriotic messages about the war. And the U.S. was also in an economic depression, similar to where we are now, with the recession and two wars. That need for heroes comes out in our culture [during hard times]," Gilbert says.
Framing superhero themes against our current sociopolitical backdrop is Brooklyn-based photographer, Dulce Pinzon. After Sept. 11, Pinzon began searching for heroes, not only in front-page New York Times tales of courage, but in the often overlooked and overworked immigrant community. Pinzon started taking photos of Mexican immigrants cloaked in superhero costumes as they performed low-paying jobs—from operating a jackhammer to delivering food on a bicycle. Under the photos, she includes captions that note subjects' names, jobs, their hometown in Mexico and how much money they send back to their families per week.
"The Mexican immigrant worker in New York is a perfect example of the hero who has gone unnoticed," writes Pinzon. "It is common for a Mexican worker in New York to work extraordinary hours in extreme conditions for very low wages which are saved at great cost and sacrifice and sent to families and communities in Mexico who rely on them to survive."
From Bernabe Mendez squeegeeing windows on a New York skyscraper dressed as Spiderman, to Oscar Gonzalez tossing a flaming pan in a restaurant kitchen dressed as the Fantastic Four's Human Torch, Pinzon's photos shine a spotlight on the quiet dedication and selflessness that make up this less-than-glamorous side of heroism.
"The principal objective of this series is to pay homage to these brave and determined men and women that somehow manage, without the help of any supernatural power, to withstand extreme conditions of labor in order to help their families and communities survive and prosper," writes Pinzon.
Mark Newport looks at the concept of superheroes from a much more personal perspective. Newport knits himself life-sized superhero costumes that he dons in everyday settings—like sitting on the diving board of his suburban pool dressed as Aquaman, peering through his swim goggles to read the newspaper. His work takes the traditionally feminine medium of knitting and uses it to raise questions about our notions of masculinity and protection. The SVCA has seven of his knitted bodysuits—The Two Gun Kid, Sweaterman 5, Argyleman, Batman 2, The Patriot, The Escapist and Y Man—hanging lifeless and deflated from the main gallery wall. Without the bulging muscles of a superhero giving them shape, the costumes seem frivolous and oddly pathetic. Newport wants his audience to feel this emptiness and be provoked to examine their conceptions of male heroism and sacrifice, specifically in the domestic arena.
"He's really poking fun at the superhero, too. Like Y Man—the male chromosome—and Argyle Man. I think he's exploring the idea that we all want heroes, we idealize them as children, but then as adults we realize that they don't exist and so there's this frustration and desire that goes on into adulthood," explains Gilbert.
Photojournalist Robbie Cooper turns his lens on the virtual realm, examining online game avatars and the humans who control them. Photos from Cooper's book, Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and feature gamers like doughy law professor Seang Rak Choi, shown feyly sipping a bubble tea, next to his blonde pigtailed avatar Uroo Ahs. While some of Cooper's subjects recreate almost identical virtual versions of themselves, many use the metaverse to change their physical and social stature, swapping genders and tacking on superpowers until they essentially become their idealized superself.
"The superhero always has that secret identity and they're able to shift back and forth," says Gilbert. "I think that we all kind of act that out. I think people act that out in real life, too. They hide things about themselves, or definitely on the Internet, you have this opportunity to be somebody that you're not."
While "Superheroes and Secret Identities" has been an overwhelming hit for the SVCA—drawing out an unusually high number of men and teenagers—it explores topics that are thematically relevant even to those who've never worn their Underoos on the outside of their pajama pants and a terrycloth towel knotted snugly around their necks. Particularly now, in this time of political and economic turmoil, in an ever-connected culture where ambiguity reigns supreme, superheroes speak to our collective need for good to triumph over evil. At least until the next episode.
"I like the idea that we all have the power to be superheroes, we all have these capacities for generosity and self-sacrifice but we don't always realize that," says Gilbert.
Through Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009. Sun Valley Center for the Arts, 191 Fifth St. E., Ketchum, 208-726-9491, sunvalleycenter.org.