BENTONVILLE -- Pop culture icons Superman and Wonder Woman have traditionally stood for "truth, justice and the American way." But many of the works collected for a new exhibition based on the classic superheroes deal with the question, "What is the American way?"
"Men of Steel, Women of Wonder" opens today at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, where it will be on view through April 22. Developed by Alejo Benedetti, an assistant curator at the museum, the exhibition features more than 70 paintings, photographs, installations, videos and other media offering fresh cultural perspectives on two key figures in the superhero universe.
Benedetti said the museum's staff worked "for years" on the project. According to a news release, this is the first major exhibition to analyze the art world's responses to Superman and Wonder Woman, with works by more than 50 U.S. and international artists, including Norman Rockwell, Laurie Anderson, Renee Cox, Mel Ramos and Jim Shaw.
"This is a dream show for me," Benedetti said Thursday during a media preview tour. Though the characters are superhuman, "the issues they tackle are innately human," he said, and they are as relevant today as when they were created about 80 years ago.
Visitors to the exhibition are greeted with familiar images of Superman and Wonder Woman in a section titled "The Heroes We Know." It includes Siri Kaur's large photographs of people who impersonate actor Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel in films, and actress Lynda Carter, who starred in the Wonder Woman TV series of the 1970s.
Around the corner in a larger gallery space, the characters are placed in historical context in the section called "Origin Stories." Here, Rockwell's iconic Rosie the Riveter is juxtaposed with paintings of pinup girls to convey the blend of strength and sex appeal that took shape as Wonder Woman in the early 1940s. Depression-era images of blue-collar men at work give a sense of the background from which Superman emerged in 1938.
In the third section, "Glimpsing Humanity," the superheroes are depicted as godlike beings in the tradition of Greek mythology -- all-powerful but with humanlike vulnerabilities. Valentin Popov deified them in St. Superman and St. Wonder Woman. He placed oil paintings of Reeve and Carter in authentic 19th-century gilded frames in the style of Russian icons. But Jason Bard Yarmosky focused on the vulnerable aspect by painting his grandmother, who had Alzheimer's, wearing a Wonder Woman-style swimsuit in the stark Wintered Fields.
The final section, "Defender of Innocents," explores the moral and ethical values the characters represent. These include issues around feminism, race, gender and sexuality, immigration, national identity and global politics. An installation titled "U.S. Department of Illegal Superheroes," by a group of the same name, features a gallery wall of wanted-type posters depicting "superheroes who have entered this country without proper authorization," including Superman, Thor, Wolverine and Black Widow.
Visitors exiting this section find themselves in an "activity space" where they can explore and share their inner superhero.
A rack of costume pieces like bat wings and capes stands next to bins of tiaras, bracelets and other superhero accessories. Visitors can adorn themselves in these and take selfies or group photos in front of a large sepia-toned, aerial-view photograph of New York City.
Budding artists can create their own superhero art at a drawing station. There's also a digital fan-art gallery, where visitors can view and upload their own superhero-inspired art.
The uploaded images will be displayed on a monitor in the activity space on a rotational basis for the duration of the exhibition.
General admission to "Men of Steel, Women of Wonder" is $12, though it's free for museum members and for people 18 and younger.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a host of lectures, film screenings, art classes and other events is scheduled. The full calendar of programs is on Crystal Bridges' website. Also, a full-color catalog accompanying the exhibition, written by Benedetti and produced by the University of Arkansas Press, is available in the museum's gift shop.
After its Crystal Bridges run, the exhibition will travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art, where it will be on display from June 22 to Sept. 2. Its final stop will be the Addison Museum of American Art in Andover, Mass., from Oct. 5 through Jan. 5.
A Section on 02/09/2019
Print Headline: Crystal Bridges exhibit aims to lasso truth of heroes' roots