Ever since Andy Warhol decreed that Batman was art, caped crusaders and villains have left trails of superhero boot prints over fashion, photography and design. Kapow! is a new exhibition all about this.
However, in these strange times our arts institutions have had to find new ways to make their exhibitions available to the public. And so The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent has had a re-think. A virtual online tour is in the works. Meanwhile, what can we expect to see when we log on?
Well, there are wild-eyed models suited and booted by counter-culture icon, Pam Hogg, and shot by Rankin, featured alongside an edit of fashion maverick Hogg’s catsuits. A huge printed wallpaper of Malcolm McDowell as super villain Alex in A Clockwork Orange by pop art legend Duggie Fields surveys the space. All of this is mixed with a poignant rendering of Judge Dredd by comic artist and costume designer, Glyn Dillon, otherworldly creations by Wirral-based sculptor Emma Rodgers for the villain’s lair in Guardians of the Galaxy, upcycled mixed-media ceramics by Billy Chainsaw, two figurative oils by Roxana Halls inspired by direct action group The Lesbian Avengers and 80s NY ‘Queen of the Night’ and Warhol muse Dianne Brill, and work by many more artists.
Martin Green and James Lawler (aka DuoVision) curated the show at the Potteries Museum. The pair ran The Gallery in Liverpool hosting exhibitions by the likes of Hogg, Jarvis Cocker, Marc Almond, Derek Jarman and many more. Their mission is to curate exhibitions by artists they view as ‘undervalued’, and they often work with the LGBTQ+ creative community.
Fields’ 1971 portrait of McDowell in A Clockwork Orange was commissioned by Stanley Kubrick when Fields was at the bleeding edge of the British pop art scene. Entitled Clocked, it has been transposed to a printed wallpaper and dominates the space.
“We wanted it as a big piece, a strange, supervillain overlooking the whole exhibition,” Lawler says. “You might not necessarily think of him as a supervillain, but he was. And then we’ve teamed it with Pam Hogg’s catsuits. Catsuits were part of Batman and Catwoman, that’s where that comes from and it filtered into fashion. It might not be directly influencing the work but all that information you took in in the 60s growing up, of Julie Newmar in a fantastic catsuit, this isn’t that far away from it.”
Two figurative oils from Roxana Halls’ “occasional and on-going” Suspended Women series also feature. In BINDING, a group of women are caught in a web of coloured ribbons. In its companion piece, AVENGING (made specially for Kapow!) a super-heroine in winged red boots and cape steps forth. “My super-heroine was formed in the image of NY icon Dianne Brill with more than a sensation of Barbarella,” Roxana Halls says. “This protagonist, her labrys ready at her thigh, is a Lesbian Avenger, a fantastical characterisation of the women whose evocatively titled group, founded in 1990s New York, fought against lesbian invisibility, misogyny and most memorably in this country, Section 28.”
Comic culture has a loyal LGBTQ fanbase which admires the artwork’s underlying eroticism and identifies with the superhero protagonist: an outsider striving for a better world, the show’s publicity says. DuoVision always does shows with an “LGBTQ twist”, Lawler says. And with this show they wanted to inject the male-dominated superhero space with a “feminine presence”.
The show’s lead image, She-ra The Most Powerful Woman in the Universe, hangs close to Halls’ AVENGING. Kelly-Anne Davitt’s standout oil painting of an Amazonian action figure is set against a fiery apocalyptic backdrop. Maybe it’s a curatorial allusion to the fire-eating that became a mainstay of the Lesbian Avengers’ actions? Or maybe I’m overthinking things.
Costume designer Michael Wilkinson, Academy Award-nominated for American Hustle and one of the men behind the Man of Steel Superman suit, has four photos that he and Tim Martin styled for China’s Modern Weekly magazine in Kapow! They’re from a ‘”superhero film that doesn’t exist”, but surely should.
“They’re a photo shoot we did when we were in China and we were inspired by contemporary Chinese fashion designers,” Wilkinson says. “There seemed to be a conversation about uber-people, people from the future, and so we found these pieces and styled them together for a photo shoot we did for a magazine there. In fashion and in film it’s about creating personas, so this was a character for an imaginary superhero film that we put together, a woman from the future. It’s up to the viewer to impose their own readings of what her superpowers might be.”
“She has fashion superpowers,” Lawler quips. “Incredible style. She can change an outfit in the blink of an eye. From daytime to evening.”
The exhibition includes fashion photographers Reece Owen and Dean Hoy’s shots for King Kong magazine’s Super issue, which feature Crimsonite – aka model Charlene Chua. Styled by Lily Bling, the lethal red lasers shooting from her eyes co-ordinate with her eye mask and glossy lips; Art by Villain’s comic covers playfully subvert the comic book genre with some LGBTQIA ‘zhoosh’ while Jason Atomic’s vintage cereal packet interventions give Snap, Crackle and Pop their superhero dues at last. And then there’s Kylo Ren mask designer Glyn Dillon’s emotive painting of Judge Dredd.
“The standout piece for me is maybe the Judge Dredd by Glyn Dillon, who now designs for films,” Lawler says. “His brother, Steve, drew the original Judge Dredd and that’s his tribute to him because he died recently.”
Next to Patrick Whitaker and Keir Malem’s co-sex corset is some of the leather-making duo’s work for Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, and Christopher Nolan and Warner DC’s The Dark Night.
Whitaker and Malem created pieces for Alexander McQueen’s first Givenchy show and worked on a string of Wachowski sisters’ films too. More recently they produced the black leather Talos suit for the Fast and Furious franchise’s 2019 outing Hobbs & Shaw, which Idris Elba wore. Their work is also celebrated in Christian Louboutin’s L’Exhibition[niste] Paris show.
At Kapow! Malem particularly likes the co-sex bustier they made for the Lily Bling styled Reece + Dean shoot featuring model and social advocate Aweng Chuol.
“We were working on this for a while, playing with sexual identity, we’ve done quite a few pieces that have incorporated both parts of both sexes and mixed them up. We’re trying to say that gender identity isn’t that important, the whole world seems to base everything on gender identity. When it’s challenged people really don’t like it. I don’t see what their beef is really. So, this is the piece I’m most proud of.”
Malem recalls their time working with the Wachowskis on Speed Racer (2008), Cloud Atlas (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2015) fondly.
“The first film we did with them they were both men, and the relationship they had was Andy was this big, strapping, football-watching, beer-drinking, ACDC-wearing man, and Larry would literally whisper in his ear and then he [Andy] would be the vocal one for both of them. Then the next film we did with them was Cloud Atlas and Larry had become Lana, who was a sort of coloured dreadlock wearing kind of sassy action woman really, and she literally drove that movie. Because it was the biggest independent movie ever made it was incredibly torturous just raising the money. We literally nearly folded every week. A lot of people wanted to give up on it and it was Lana who drove the whole thing. It was her force of will that made that film happen. We all became a big family on that film, and that was the best filmic experience we’d ever had.”
Whitaker cites celebrated costume designer Bob Ringwood’s work as game-changing in superhero costume design. “We had the great pleasure of working with Bob Ringwood who begat all this…he was given a massive opportunity to do Dune with David Lynch and he got the first Tim Burton Batman gig as a result of that.
“That first Tim Burton Batsuit was the first moulded suit of any great acclaim. There may have been things comparable before. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is bloody amazing if you look at it properly. Especially for its time. Bob Ringwood’s Batsuit set a new level though. Ringwood used to tell me, ‘I’ve had producers in Hollywood who are really, really angry with me.’ Because of the bar he’d set. ‘You’ve ruined it,’ they told him. ‘Now we’re all going to have to do them that well.’ And that’s exactly what’s happened. The reason why we have these beautiful suits being created in contemporary shows is because of the bar Ringwood set with that.”
Just along from Lorenzo Rosi’s stop-you-in-your-tracks 2014 portrait of Jonny Woo as Wonder Woman, Malem points out the corsets for Warner DC’s Wonder Woman. The pair made 160 works with a team of 16 over a year for the film. “I think with the second fitting we had with Gal Gadot she said, ‘oh, this is not too shoddy’ which I took as a complement because she was a pretty top fashion model for a while.”
Main image: ROXANA HALLS AVENGING OIL ON LINEN 160 x 160 cm
The Potteries Museum is closed. But it will be using its social media channels to ensure that you’ll still have access to its amazing stories and objects from the comfort of your own home. Kapow! runs until September 27, 2020. For more information click here.