To widen perceptions of comics and contemporary art has a cost. A new exhibition inspired by superheroes takes the masks off and throws lightweight topics out the window in favor of troubling themes.
Among the first facts that becomes blatantly obvious upon entering Beyond the Cape! Comics and Contemporary Art is that this is not a show for kids. Happy ends go rogue. Flat cartoon-like figures, bright colors, and bold lines dress up candid conversations historically reserved for the dinner table or anonymous posts. Racism, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and climate change speak up here through more than 80 works taking almost the entire first-floor gallery space of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
The inoculation against the reassurance and happy thoughts cartoons usually convey enters abruptly like a rushed needle. It comes in the form of a large painting from 2008 depicting a happy face against a black background. The light-humored expression done in enamel should feel very familiar in the age of emoticons, but the broken-up lines, oversized white eyes and dripping lend Hey There! an anarchist quality. This emoji has gone punk. Brooklyn artist Joyce Pensato is known for exploring the darker side of toons through large black-and-white paintings.
Immediately to the left hangs a series of three pencil drawings portraying each a little girl with adorable eyelashes, tiny feet and a cute nightgown. From a distance, she could fool anyone. Fully displayed above her bulging eyes and overgrown head are sinister thoughts we can only presume to be the result of isolation, rebellion and helplessness. We can’t decide whether she is a fragile child in need of connection or a well-behaved menace. It’s only a matter of time before the rage contained within Burn Everything, Happy Alone and To Hell and Back is freed.
The 2008 drawings are the creations of Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, a natural introvert who turned to comics and television for companionship before studying arts and developing a style that speaks to emotional duality.
Another deceptive scene featuring a long-beaked bird sporting a red robe and a badge reading “NYPD” appears nearby. The bird skates on thin ice toward a bridge under which a rat and an unworldly creature are seen advising a monk in waist-high water. Despite the inclusion of animals and exaggerated features, No Fault Insurance is not particularly lenient when it comes to revealing the shocking truth. In 2000, New York Police shot Amadou Diallo 41 times as he reached for his wallet to identify himself.
This 2006 tapestry by Indiana-born William T. Wiley recreates the disturbing details of the Guinea immigrant’s death, down to the wallet that Diallo (here represented by a bloody black bird) never got to hold up. The distorted scales of justice depicted hint at the soft consequences the four plainclothes officers faced after 19 bullets hit the 23-year-old’s body.
On view through Oct.6, Beyond the Cape! includes photography, prints, drawings, video, and sculpture by 40 artists who cite graphic novels and comic books as artistic influences. Among the works selected, few actually allude to the colorful optimism superheroes embody and even these are unconventional.
Renée Cox’s 1998 prints Burning and Motherland feature Jamaica’s superhero, a female antiracist avenger by the name of Raje. She wears the colors of her flag, sharp metal nails and does not need a cape. Her mission is to cure negative broad stereotypes associated with women and people of color and replace them with accurate, non-generalized notions.
A freethinking minister living in a monochromatic world defies the establishment and injects color into his bland universe, but not before a lively battle between kindhearted Mounds and tyrannical Vegans ensues.
Oklahoma-born Trenton Doyle Hancock dreamed up the plot and alien creatures that breathe life into this 90-minute ballet titled Cult of Color: Call to Color. Racial injustice has been a prominent theme in the artist’s work since the fourth grade. Good and evil put on a passionate performance on a stage that gradually becomes a rainbow.
Despite its dark undertone, Beyond the Cape! is not devoid of fun innovative interpretations that defend the artistic value of this genre. It even contains a reading room housing hundreds of graphic novels and comics that invites visitors to dive deeper into this graphic world of brave actions, exclamation points and crazy stunts.
A 2-minute video titled The Crime of Art recreates the notorious 1990 theft of 13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston by two men disguised as policemen. The pieces, valued at half a billion dollars, were never recovered. This animation from 2017 is built with found images German artist Koto Ezawa admits to appropriating and manipulating to arrive at his own art heist. The self-proclaimed digital DJ employs realistic characters and props to carry out the heart-pounding plot, which at times turns Hollywood-dramatic with on-foot chases and laser beam fields.
Like an antidote to complacency and apathy, Beyond the Cape! cuts through our veil of selective ignorance to announce loud and clear social ills that persist and have been going on for some time. That it manages to serve us hard truths using comics and cartoons as conduits shatters everything we thought about them. Far from being a cheap easy convenient form of entertainment that lifts the spirits, contemporary takes on comics are willing to spit, slap and knock sense into us
In that sense – and very much in superhero fashion – they save the day.
Beyond the Cape! runs through Oct. 6 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Admission: $12, seniors $10, children 12 and under, free. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays and holidays. Call 561-392-2500, or visit www.bocamuseum.org.