Last Friday, August 7th, I went to the Renwick Gallerylecture "Superheroes and Alter Egos" given by artist Mark Newport. Newport is one of four artists featured in the Renwick's exhibition Staged Stories: Renwick Craft Invitational 2009, which runs through January 3rd, 2010. His work consists of life-size, hand-knitted superhero costumes (constructed to fit Newport's own six-foot frame) and photographic prints about knitting/constructing masculinity.
Before attending the lecture, I wandered through the exhibition. Composed of Christyl Boger's gilded neo-Classical ceramic figurines that incorporate props like swimming pool toys, Mary Van Cline's large black-and-white photographs of austere landscapes encased in glass, SunKoo Yuh's densely layered ceramic sculptures of a multitude of figures, animals, and everything in between, and Newport's knitted translations of comic book apparel, overall the exhibit is a disorienting yet informative survey of the powers of multimedia. The cool, coy humor of Boger's seahorse-clutching sculpture has a markedly different effect on the viewer than, say, the pained and post-apocalyptic figures that seem to drip and bleed onto one another in Yuh's sculptures. However, the common thread, as I see it (and what I enjoyed most), was the combination and co-existence of diametric themes within the pieces(such as high vs. low art, east vs. west, masculine vs. feminine, etc.).
Anyway, I highly recommend the exhibit (FREE).
But, to butter the bread further, let me tell you about the lecture. Newport showed a series of slides and explained the development and major themes of his art. His work centers on examining and re-defining stereotypical constructions of masculinity and 'the protector' by channeling hyper-masculine figures through 'feminine' and 'passive' craft media. Some of Newport's first pieces were collectible sports cards that he beaded. In one example, his bead-work transformed a linebacker's padded and bulked up jersey into a brightly jeweled ensemble. He went on to create 'freedom quilts' out of a mosaic of comic book excerpts. In 2003, he began with his series of knitted superhero costumes with Batman. From there, he has gone on to knit all kinds of 'superheroes', from 'real' superheroes like the Fantastic Four and Rawhide Kid, to his own inventions such as Argyleman and Every-Any-No-Man.
Hilarious riffs on icons of masculinity, these costumes are a testament to Newport's skill (and in some cases specifically highlight certain knitting techniques--bringing the craft of knitting directly to the forefront of the work). At the same time, however, their placement on the walls of the Gallery leaves the costumes distended and (without a body to fill them) haunted.
It was great hearing Newport explain his process and thinking behind these 'suits.' Pictures do not do the pieces justice; the works have a presence of their own (not to mention their intricate detail). The exhibition runs until January 3rd, 2010, and if you missed out on the lecture, there's another chance to hear Newport speak at the Artists' Roundtable, moderated by Kate Bonansinga, Friday, September 25, at 6 p.m. in the McEvoy Auditorium in the museum's main building (located at Eighth and F Streets N.W.).
Fittingly, throughout the lecture the woman next to me was knitting.
--Molly Holden, TSA Studio Arts Intern