Archive for the ‘Superheroes’ Tag

O Superman

Sometimes travel provides an occasion to reflect upon the place you’ve left behind… While I was in New York recently, there were two different kinds of ‘home’ that I felt conscious of having left.

One was England (or Britain, I suppose). I left Britain in 1995, when I moved to Melbourne, but New York this April was full of buzz about the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s movie, which I have written about here and here already, and I certainly think of Banksy as a quintessentially English (or British) artist…

New York was also full of visual reminders of Melbourne, the city that became my adopted home. As I mentioned before, one of them was Meggs’s stickers, which I saw in many places around New York.

I’ve written about Meggs before (see here), and in that entry I was discussing his work in conjunction with that of Anthony Lister, an Australian artist from Brisbane, living in New York these last several years. There are several different consonances between these two in terms of their artistic preoccupations, but in terms of simple coincidence it was amusing that while I was in New York, Anthony Lister was paying a visit to Melbourne, where he had a show at Metro Gallery.

But it’s not as though Lister was entirely gone from New York. His stickers are still very much present on the streets:

And the front of Faile’s studio was adorned with this wonderful Lister painting:

Lister also had a solo show, How to Catch a Time-Traveller, at Lyons Wier Gallery in April, running simultaneously with the Melbourne show.

Meggs and Lister are linked by more than a common nationality; there’s a strong thematic link in their fascination with the superheroes of popular culture, and comics in particular. Both create painted works as well as their own versions of action figures, miniatures and busts. Both Meggs and Lister show superheroes as figures of crisis, barely holding themselves together in the face of unknown assailants or obligations.

But in representing these highly familiar figures away from the context of comics, their methods with paint are very different, however. Meggs uses a combination of stencils and techniques from graffiti art; Lister is evolving a style that recalls Francis Bacon’s way of blurring the painted figure to create a sense both of movement and of the disintegration of the self.

In Lister’s show at Lyons Wier, its title alludes to the idea that these figures are in motion – the artist is the one with the power to stop time, to freeze the disintegrating superhero for an instant, for our scrutiny. Lister’s had a prolific career on the street for a long time, and it’s fantastic to see his painterly skills evolving. Maybe Lister’s thematic will start to broaden a little so that it is no longer simply the superhero which is subject to examination. Charlie Isoe’s current show at Lazarides in London, while containing a lot of works that seemed to me to be somewhat similar, disappointingly, to Lister’s style, showed at least what can be achieved when a wider range of objects are brought into the paintings.

What next, Mr Lister? Can’t wait to see.

Superheroes forever…?

I’ve been thinking a lot about superheroes lately. This might sound odd, but they seem to be in the cultural (and political) air at the moment.

Superheroes have featured in recent shows by three artists: Anthony Lister, an artist from Brisbane who now lives and works in Brooklyn; D*Face, one of the mainstays of the London street art scene; and Meggs, based in Melbourne. All of them feature superhero figures in their work – and all of these superheroic figures are in some way twisted, or subverted, or undercut in the way they are depicted by the artists.

Lister has had two shows recently, one at Elms Lesters in London (with WK Interact), and ‘This Won’t Change Anything’ at metro 5 gallery in Melbourne. I only got the briefest glimpse of the Melbourne show, but I think there are some really interesting things going on in his work right now. The figures in his works emerge out of the paint, alluded to rather than rendered in explicit detail.. Colours are sometimes thin, pale or insubstantial, almost gauzy. The combination of these inchoate figures and Lister’s ethereal brushstrokes creates a superhero who is rather less than heroic – a fleeting character rather than one with the definitive qualities of the hero.

In D*Face’s current show ‘Apopcalypse’, at Black Rat Press in London, several works feature superheroes. In one, Batman is shown hanging by the neck from a noose; in another, part of Superman’s face has been replaced by a ghastly skull. These characters, usually associated with strength, invincibility and power, are in this show made problematic. Their presence seems less to do with ‘saving the world’ (as superheroes conventionally do) and more to do with (the evils of) capitalism.

Many of the works in this show take a swipe at the institutions of capitalism (see for example ‘American Depress’, an ‘altered’, expanded replica of the Amex credit card). What then should we make of an image such as Batman hanged by the neck? Is he the victim of a corrupt system? Or is he a part of that corruption? The link between superheroes and capitalism does not, in these strange times, seem at all strained: merchant bankers have previously shown, in their uncritical adoption of Tom Wolfe’s critical epithet ‘masters of the universe’, that they are not averse to viewing themselves as all-powerful superheroes. And I write this entry on a day when I read in the London newspapers that the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is being described as ‘a superhero’ by European financiers for his bailout of the banks. Perhaps the current global financial crisis gives D*Face’s critique of capitalist superheroes an unexpectedly topical edge.

in Meggs’ recent work, the ‘Own Worst Enemy’  show at Dont Come gallery in Melbourne and which can be seen here, there’s no critique of capitalism, but it’s possible to read the works as a critique of powerful masculinity. The images draw heavily on comics and their rendition of the superhero, but rather than depicting singular characters (a ‘Batman’, a ‘Phantom’ and so on), these works feature a figure who is an uncomfortable hybrid of several superheroes. His costume sometimes shows the pointed ears of Batman, sometimes the purple colours of the Phantom, sometimes a winged helmet, sometimes the features of He-Man, and so on. In looking at the figures we recognize each of these as markers of the various superheroes, and thus subscribe to the idea that by means of such markers we can identify them – only to find that the figures resist easy identification, always presenting themselves as uncertain amalgamations and alternatives.

And ‘uncertain’ is a key word here. The figure embodies uncertainty. In a number of images his face grimaces in pain or distress; in others, he cowers away from an unseen threat or attacker. In one series (‘Don’t Know, Don’t Care’), he turns his head away, eyes closed, saying, ‘Don’t…’. The depiction of a superhero in postures of distress, uncertainty, powerlessness or injury radically undercuts the standard associations we have for such figures, converting them from figurs of salvation and rescue, into characters who may need rescue themselves.

Which means that, adapting the classic question ‘who guards the guards’, we should ask, ‘who is there to save a saviour?’. When ‘white knights’ and superheroes are incomplete, corruptible, or vulnerable, it may well be time to reconsider our cultural and political assumption that there will always be someone to rescue us.

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