POWerful Images

As a kid, I always thought Wonder Woman, that ass-kicking female superhero, was so cool. I was never into the comic book but I loved the '70s show starring Lynda Carter, with her bullet-deflecting bracelets and invisible jet. Carter was an object of wonder for male and female viewers of all ages. She had an impressive figure -- as exaggerated as Barbie's but with meat on her bones, just skirting the edge of zaftig -- combined with a wholesome demeanor. The substructure of her bathing suit/ Amazon princess garb allowed her monumental bosom to defy gravity, but I never thought it looked very comfortable or practical for fighting crime. But Carter was a great Wonder Woman and role model as she radiated cool-headed confidence. I always felt those Contact Lens Express commercials she did later were such a comedown for her.

The subtext of Wonder Woman -- seemingly ordinary female Diana Prince is actually an Amazon with extraordinary powers -- is similar to a lot of other comics in which unobtrusive, unlikely characters are much more than they seem. The mild-mannered Clark Kent camouflages Superman, the nerdy Peter Parker harbors Spider-Man. The idea of the unlikely, the unempowered or the disenfranchised suddenly being able to assert themselves in superhuman ways has made for cathartic comic book experiences. Through them audiences have been able to escape and transcend the ordinary.

Comics have been a powerful force in the entertainment industry, and they have also significantly influenced contemporary art. "Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Comics in Contemporary Art," curated by Valerie Cassel at the Contemporary Arts Museum, explores how artists have commented upon, appropriated and transformed comic imagery for their own purposes.

In Technology/ Transformation (1978-79), Dara Birnbaum appropriates clips from the Wonder Woman television series and loops them to show Diana Prince hypnotically transforming and retransforming into Wonder Woman. This early video work shows the heroine as she spins in a circle, her fashionable '70s tunic-style evening wear spiraling around her, and with a blast of light and explosive sound, she is suddenly clad in her red, white and blue costume with gold eagle embroidered over the bosom.

By repeating the flash of light and explosion that signals WW's transformation over and over again, Birnbaum creates a kind of mandala. It exaggerates Wonder Woman's otherworldliness. In another scene her feminine superiority is none too subtle; a wimpy guy in a brown suit cowers behind her as she deflects bullets.

While Birnbaum ratchets up the mystery of her superhero, Cat Chow's Power Ranger Kimono contrasts the tough, dynamic image of the Yellow Ranger with the traditional submissive image of Japanese women. Chow has crafted a seven-foot kimono out of hundreds of 3-D Yellow Ranger trading cards. The elegant form of the robe hangs on a T-shaped stand, its sleeves outstretched. As you walk up to it, the images on the cards shift from a close-up portrait of the young Asian woman who plays the character to her yellow-suited and -helmeted figure poised to attack. The kimono that is stereotypically associated with obliging female passivity has been turned into a kind of suit of armor.

Renee Cox has created her own superhero, starring herself. In the 1998 Rajé series, a character with two societal strikes against her -- she's black and female -- transcends the natural world to accomplish superhuman feats. In the large-scale, glossy color photographs, the statuesque artist is clad in a one-shouldered, Afrocentric, red, green, black and yellow take on Wonder Woman's scanty patriotic ensemble. For Lost in Space, she punches out a short, bald, bearded white male in a business suit as they float somewhere in the universe. In Chillin' with Liberty, she pauses for a rest atop the Statue of Liberty, sitting with her thigh-high platform boots daintily crossed at the ankle. In Taxi she literally catches a cab in Times Square, straddling the street like the 50-foot woman as she reaches down with big silver claws to snap up a yellow cab. Is she seeking revenge on those cabbies who speed past black fares? Cox's lushly campy take on superherodom is humor with a bite.

But the superhero context can be subversive in other ways. In Michael Ray Charles's new work, Jesse Jackson is presented as a big-headed superhero with a tiny body, à la the Powerpuff Girls. As Jackson's huge grinning noggin flies through the sky with little stylized arms and legs, Charles seems to say, Jackson's big ego is his superpower.

In addition to creating characters, comics effectively tell stories by combining pictures and words. Robert Pruitt wryly tells the tale of his antihero, Black Stuntman, a superhero who requires special powers just to deal with daily life as a black man. In Pruitt's wonderfully low-tech video animation, the artist's voice-over combines with simple stop-motion pencil drawings of his character. Pruitt shows the origins of Black Stuntman, "long ago in the motherland," where he is shown developing mathematics when a white man in a pith helmet comes along. Pruitt shows the explorer peering around a tree at the African and in a British accent exclaims, "By Jove he's BLACK!" In the short series of videos Pruitt explains Black Stuntman's dual identity as both an American and a black American. His superpowers include an exceptionally thick skin to block out racial slurs and conversational slipups. Occasionally Pruitt's narrative gets a little heavy-handed, but overall the piece is witty and incisive, and Pruitt's low-key, comic drawing style suits it perfectly.

Roger Shimomura pulls out all the stops for an in-your-face painting series that addresses racial stereotypes. Shimomura inserts a Japanese caricature with yellow flesh, buck teeth, squinty eyes and thick black round glasses into animated scenes with '40s-style imagery. He looks not unlike Mickey Rooney as the upstairs neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's, made up in the Asian equivalent of blackface. In Jap's a Jap #2 (2000), an image derived from a Breakfast at Tiffany's scene, the character dances with abandon among smiling girls. Frat Rats (2000) shows Shimomura's character helping carry a coed on his shoulders surrounded by a bunch of grinning all-American Archie and Jughead types. Reggie even seems to be lurking in the background. The racist caricature sticks out like a sore thumb, even beside the other cartoons. What's that guy doing among all those Americans? Shimomura's pointed exaggeration parallels the alienation of Asian-Americans in American culture.

Comic-influenced imagery is put to use for the personal in the work of Trenton Doyle Hancock and Henry Darger. Hancock's character "The Mound" is a black-and-white-striped lumpy form that he uses as a kind of alter ego. Eight small works forming the For a Floor of Flora series (2002) are shown framed, hanging against a background of Hancock's own springlike floral wallpaper.

The colors of the piece are bright, clear and lovely, but the static, blobby mounds sprout unsettling things: a lumpy brainlike form with tiny anxious yellow eyes, a head with an ominous orange glare that looks like Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes, and the head of a blond girl with the vacant stare of the lobotomized. Look closer and an eyeball hangs out of one of the beautifully drawn flowers that surround the mound. White spaces among the colored flowers of the wallpaper suddenly become severed hands and forearms with cartoonish bone joints sticking out from the neatly sliced flesh. Hancock seeds his drawings with psychological unease.

But while Hancock may draw on the lurking disquiet of the unconscious, Darger uses cartoon narratives to lay bare the truly, deeply and unsettlingly strange contents of his mind. The self-taught Darger is often grouped into the category of outsider artist, but this "reclusive and religious man" was an outsider in more ways than one. His drawings have pastel storybook colors and images culled from paper dolls, cartoons and other popular sources. His more-than-a-little-obsessive 15,000-page narrative is epically titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Gandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (1957-67). The initial appearance is of some Dick, Jane and Sally story, until you look closer and realize that Jane is half-naked and has a dick. In Darger's really, really unsettling world, transsexual children go on a violent odyssey. Darger's work is fascinating because of his elaborate, overwhelming and truly bizarre narrative. But it leaves you with an uncomfortable, creepy feeling as well.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, wittily using the "Splat," "Boom" and "Pow" straight out of a Batman fight scene. "Splat: Squashing the Force Field of Pop Icons" contains work that transforms existing pop images. "Boom: Exploding the Language of Art Through Alien Technology" incorporates work that uses the formal trappings or techniques associated with comics. While "Pow: Slammin' into Mt. Mythomania and Spewing Alter Egos and New Superheroes" features work in which artists have used a comics sensibility to create their own icons and narratives.

But not all of the works fit neatly into their categories. Additionally, because of the logistics of installation, some objects are stranded in other sections. Grouping objects by anime influences, say, or superhero imagery may have been a more superficial approach but could have made things more visually cohesive. There are a lot of interesting pieces in the show, but things get a little confusing.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer