The Burden of Power

In recent showing at Rymer Gallery, Sam Dunson’s superheroes are all-too-human


By Joe Nolan

Along with Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Unbreakable is a great superhero film. The others are celebrated adaptations of classic comic book stories and characters, but Shyamalan’s film is different: it’s an original tale that borrows the tropes of the genre while simultaneously subverting viewer expectations to the point that one might be forgiven for not realizing they were watching a superhero film.

In his memorable exhibit at Nashville’s Rymer Gallery, Sam Dunson’s Superpower mixes the aesthetics of comic books and the look of cheap printing with a family legend that claims his maternal grandmother’s whisper could alleviate a nasty burn. Dunson’s subjects wear masks and capes and speak in dialog bubbles. As in Unbreakable, these characters are grounded in the real world, but Dunson’s humble heroes also have one foot in art history.

“His Last Ditch Attempt To Release Beauty Upon The World” is a send-up of Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.” In Dunson’s version, an older African-American man with dreadlocks is sitting on a bedroom chair, about to bite the head off of a stuffed sock monkey. Dunson’s jabbing at himself here – the artist represented by this personification of creative frustration.

“He Was Ever Thankful For His Superhero Training” finds a young African-American man wearing an exaggerated hi-top fade haircut and blowing a powerful, red energy ray from his gaping mouth – his muscular arms rippling taut with the effort. A small humanoid creature in a furry suit turns to him and whispers, “Remember your training.” A funny and intense painting, the scorching lawn smoulders ominously beneath the bright-burning ray. Dunson’s images are realized over a pattern of spray-painted dots that exaggerate the Ben-Day dots that are the hallmark of cheap, low resolution printing. Roy Lichtenstein also exaggerated these dots in his pop comic scenes. Dunson is winking at him.

The show’s central image, “He Never Knew That She Could Talk The Fire Out” finds a little boy in a fuzzy orange costume screaming in his grandmother’s kitchen – the exposed, glowing stove top burner in the foreground is cast as the culprit in the burning of the boy’s hand. The grandmother has taken the offended extremity to her lips where her whispers are realized as a rococo plasma of violet, purple and red. The boy’s hand transforms from fiery scarlet to icy blue as the “whisper” oozes around it. Grandma wears a mask and slides her super boots inside her fuzzy slippers.

My maternal grandmother was a painter. She could also do something otherworldly with wild blackberry cobbler. That’s another story.


Superpower ran through August 25, 2012, at Rymer Gallery, 233 Fifth Ave. North, Nashville, TN 37219 (615-752-6030).

Photos provided by Natalie Dunham, Gallery Director, The Rymer Gallery




Filed Under: Uncategorized,