Evidenced by the global success of recent films such as Black Panther
, Avengers: Endgame
and Captain Marvel
, among many others, the world is still captivated by the concept of superheroes. While less memorable examples might fall within that formulaic realm the New York Times summed up as “mental popcorn, meant to be rapidly consumed and forgotten,” the box office numbers prove we’re still collectively content to sit and watch statuesque freaks of nature fight off evil forces — even when the takeaway is minimal. Long before the schlock of what’s been dubbed “Hollywood’s Comic Book Age,” Superman and Wonder Woman captured imaginations as defenders of humanity fighting injustices amid the backdrops of the Great Depression and WWII. Introduced in 1938 and 1941, respectively, this iconic, spandex-clad pair inspire myriad incarnations in “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder,” an exhibition organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and landing at the San Antonio Museum of Art this summer.
Although it might conjure visions of comic cons and nerdy fan art, the traveling show digs deep into the cultural significance of both figures — and it isn’t an entirely kid-friendly affair. Curated by Alejo Benedetti, the collection of 70-plus paintings, photographs, videos and installations goes beyond the expected depictions of costumed heroism to explore sexuality, immigration, race, idolatry, desire and the very building blocks that made these characters possible. Spanning from the 1930s to the present day, “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder” builds an interpretive timeline in four thematic sections.
Encompassing both the reverent and irreverent, the introductory section The Heroes We Know comprises photographer Siri Kaur’s amusing portraits of celebrity impersonators captured in mundane, contemporary contexts, Peter Saul’s playfully surreal painting Superman Versus the Toilet Duck and a provocative yet nostalgic installation by Jim Shaw, The Issue of My Loins, that showcases — and supersizes — Superman’s crotch.
Courtesy of San Antonio Museum of Art
Placing the mythical stars in historical context, Origin Stories is reportedly the germinating seed for the entire exhibition. Here, real-life men of steel and women of wonder are presented in etchings of 1930s-era steel workers building the metropolis, photographs of women welding in the Willow Run bomber plant in the 1940s and Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting of brawny machinist and feminist icon Rosie the Riveter eating a sandwich as the American flag billows in the background.
Contrasting God-like power with traces of vulnerability, Glimpsing Humanity places our heroes in unexpected contexts: an alienated Superman reads the paper amid a barren landscape in Llyn Foulkes’ 1991 painting Where Did I Go Wrong and gets lit in Mike Kelley’s 1999 video Superman Recites Selections from “The Bell Jar” and Other Works by Sylvia Plath. Wonder Woman becomes a religious icon in Valetin Popov’s 2009 painting St. Wonder Woman and gets placed In Exile alongside the Virgin Mary, Aphrodite and others in Mary Beth Edelson’s mixed-media painting from 1989.
Timely and provocative, the closing section Defender of the Innocent challenges stereotypes of gender and race while importantly reminding that both beloved characters are immigrants (he’s from Krypton, she’s from Themyscira, aka Paradise Island). Sarah Hill addresses the plight of a trans Wonder Woman in the 2014 video They Wonder; late San Antonio artist Mel Casas calls out the lack of diversity in the superhero realm in his painting Humanscape 70 (Comic Whitewash); Superman locks lips with Batman in Rich Simmons’ 2014 mixed-media work Between the Capes; Dulce Pinzón celebrates Mexican immigrants as working-class superheroes in staged photographs; and an installation attributed to the U.S. Department of Illegal Superheroes (ICE DISH) comes complete with a hotline where concerned citizens can report suspicious activity.
As host venue, SAMA rises to the heroic occasion with an abundance of complementary programs, including talks with featured artists, weekly gallery talks, workshops, a Superhero Pajama Party
(July 26) and outdoor screenings of Black Panther
(June 28), Superman: The Movie
(July 12), Nacho Libre
(July 19), The Incredibles 2
(August 2), Batman
(August 6), Wonder Woman
(August 9), Birdman
(August 16), Lu Over the Wall
(August 23) and Superman II
$12-$20, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed-Thu, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat-Sun, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue through September 1, San Antonio Museum of Art, 200 W. Jones Ave., (210) 978-8100, samuseum.org.
Get our top picks for the best events in San Antonio every Thursday morning. Sign up for our Events Newsletter.