You might think the recently opened exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder” is a celebration of comic book art and aimed at a particular group of superhero aficionados. It is that — includes a rare first issue of the Superman comic — but it is much more.

“Men of Steel” delves into many issues in contemporary life: Race, immigration, sexism, gender and human frailty are all part of the picture. The show is smart. It has funny elements and devastating images. It was created by one of Crystal Bridges’ own curators, Alejo Benedetti; the show’s success can be credited to his passion for the characters and his understanding of the ways artists have imbued these paintings, performance art, installation and videos with rich meaning.

Benedetti’s idea for “Men of Steel” was born out of the idea of an exhibition of the museum’s collection of 1940s etchings of steelworkers, the original “men of steel.” Thanks to his lifelong love of superheroes and their representation, the idea for a larger exhibition took flight. In the “Origin Stories” introduction to the exhibition, these social realism works depicting strong men hovering over cities on steel beams and a 1935 oil painting of muscular laborers illustrate the tropes the comic book artists were familiar with: mighty men doing mighty things. Here also is a 19th century poster of a strongman in tights and wide belt. The familiarity of that strongman image in the popular mind made Superman instantly understood as someone whose strength was out of the ordinary: an American god.

Advertisement

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, which is part of Crystal Bridges’ collection, illustrates the reality that images of strong women must include feminine elements, too: A muscular Rosie wears lipstick; powerful Wonder Woman is sexy. The dichotomy — sex symbol/power symbol — is one explored throughout the show.

Mary Beth Edelson looks at Wonder Woman as part of female deities whose power is only mythical in “Exile,” a monumental work in acrylic, fabric and collage. It’s a complex tapestry of sorts that puts our distaff superhero amid Aphrodite, Athena, Eve, the Virgin Mary and the short-lived Goddess of Freedom erected in Tiananmen Square.

Fallibility is taken up in installation artist Jim Shaw’s “The Issue of My Loins.” In Shaw’s case, the superhero is his father.

“When you walk into this space,” Benedetti told a group of journalists invited to preview the show, “what you are seeing is Superman’s crotch.” A wall that appears to be a huge two-dimensional black-and-white painting of the hero’s costumed groin is actually a three-dimensional piece revealing glowing crystals in all colors behind a wall cut out to define Superman’s legs. “They are the family jewels,” Benedetti said, and they are toxic — like Kryptonite — an idea supported by the rest of the installation of drawings by Shaw’s father.
They are works the elder Shaw did in 1957 for a course with the Famous Artist Correspondence School, and are overlain with corrections mailed back to him with detailed, two-page critiques. Shaw’s father got a B- for the course, revealing the idolized father to be less than perfect, just as Kryptonite takes Superman’s powers away.

The Shaw installation is a way to “tip off” visitors “that in the show we’re going to be breaking down these characters, and we’re going to be looking at them in different ways,” Benedetti said. “It’s not just going to be pretty pictures.”

One of those less-than-pretty pictures is in the Comic Whitewash portion of the show, where Peter Williams’ painting of a police officer arresting a black superhero whose chest is emblazoned with “N Word” instead of an S can be found.

Advertisement

Also in Comic Whitewash are terrific photographs by African-American artist Renée Cox, in which she casts herself as the superhero Rajé, sporting high-heeled patent leather boots and a bodysuit the colors of Africa. In one photo, she sits atop Lady Liberty; in another she is brandishing broken chains, referencing not only Wonder Woman’s vulnerability to capture, but the chains of slavery. Cox said she created Rajé after her children could not find any black action figures at the toy store.

Batman and Superman are passionately kissing in Rich Simmons’ “Between the Capes,” which Benedetti said should express that sexual orientation does not change us: Batman is still Batman; Superman is still Superman. A poignant video by Sarah Hill depicts a performance piece in which a transgender Wonder Woman spins and falls and gets back up again until she can no longer stand. Hill is referencing Wonder Woman’s change from secretary Diane Prince to superhero by spinning, but Hill’s spinning superhero can only struggle against a world that doesn’t accept transgender reality.

In a section on vulnerability is Jacob Yarmosky’s hyper-realistic “Wintered Fields,” a painting of his grandmother, old, wrinkled and infirm, dressed as Wonder Woman. His grandmother, Yarmosky writes, “was a wonder woman to me. Her heroic battle with Alzheimer’s disease left her vulnerable,” and the painting is meant to show “both the heroism and vulnerability of the human condition.”

The artists of “Men of Steel” take advantage of the fact that both Wonder Woman and Superman are immigrants — Wonder Woman from the island of Themyscira and Superman from Krypton (which exploded, making him a refugee as well). Dulce Pinzon’s immensely affecting photographs cast immigrants working in New York to send money back to their families in Mexico as superheroes: Maria Luisa Romero, in Wonder Woman garb, works in a Brooklyn laundromat; delivery man Noe Reyes, in a Superman costume, is pedaling his loaded bike, red cape flying.

Delightfully and painfully sardonic are posters from ICE DISH, or the U.S. Department of Illegal Superheroes, depicting images of multiple superheroes — Supergirl, Hawkman, the Mighty Thor, Namor (the Sub-Mariner), the Silver Surfer, etc. — emblazoned with the word ILLEGAL under their pictures. This only a small part of the ICE DISH project: There’s a number you can call (1-844-4-ICE-DISH) where you’ll get a recording directing you to extensions where you can report suspected aliens of the superhero variety, and a website, icedish.org. (The artists are undercover.)

For comic book fans, there is something special: two rare, bound volumes of comic books, one of Action Comics Issue No. 1, published in June 1938 and introducing the Superman character, and another from 1942. “This is insane, y’all,” Benedetti said, his comic fandom flag flying. “There aren’t tons of them out there. … Some people will be coming just to see these.”
Among the show’s artists who are coming to Bentonville to give talks are Sarah Hill, who’ll appear with video artist Dara Birbaum, whose video “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” a piece about the dual identity of the superhero, is in the exhibition. Hill and Birbaum will talk Friday, March 8. Musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose music video “O Superman” casts the superhero as Big Brother, whose loss of moral compass makes him dangerous, comes to Crystal Bridges Friday, March 22.

The museum has gone all out for “Men of Steel,” and it’s no wonder. It’s the perfect illustration that there’s more to a work of art than what you see just passing by. Crystal Bridges has created a boxed catalog for the exhibition that holds short volumes by arts writers and academicians about various sections of the exhibition. This is the marrow of this rich work. There is also a one-page guide for visitors to help them explore some of the exhibition more deeply. Crystal Bridges also enlisted Fayetteville artist Gustav Carlson to create Superpower Pads, digital cartoons that tell stories of the art and artists.

Comic book artists will want to post their work to #cbmoswow on Instagram; the images will be shown on a large digital screen in an activity area outside the last gallery.
Also not to be missed there: The aluminum and wood alien sculpture holding dirt from around jazz musician Sun Ra’s grave. Artist Robert Pruitt created the alien (“Untitled Male Figure”) and on Jan. 20, with help from Dr. Ross Carroll with Arkansas BalloonSAT, launched it 109,000 feet above the earth aboard a 12-foot-tall weather balloon from the grounds of Crystal Bridges. The sculpture was recovered near Hector (Pope County), on a farm. A video of the event can be seen at the museum.

“Men of Steel, Women of Wonder” will run through April 22.

Advertisement