Chad Penner's MFA thesis exhibition, "Superpower," depicts superheroes differently than what we see in a typical comic book. This week, the McMaster Gallery is showcasing ten larger-than-life charcoal drawings created by Penner, a master of fine arts student at USC.
The physical size of Penner’s work exceeds human height, showing the power and authority of the superheroes. The stark contrast between the superheroes’ bright costumes and the mysterious dark backgrounds creates an ominous mood. One of Penner’s favorite pieces in this exhibition, titled “Hung,” is an example of this contrast, with the moonlight highlighting Superman’s iconic logo and cape.
Each work in the gallery took about three weeks to complete. The largest piece in the gallery took the most time, both because of its size and because he decided to redraw the piece in blue and red instead of the dark colors seen in the other pieces.
Other than simply being a fan of superheroes, Penner saw the opportunity to use superheroes to explain current issues in America. The growing familiarity with superheroes in popular culture — such as Superman and Captain America — has helped his message become more relatable to fans of the movies or comics.
“There’s this sort of contemporary renaissance of superheroes with a movie coming out every other month ... it's a language that people understand," Penner said. "But it has these really obvious ties to American culture."
He used the recent popularity of superheroes to share a message about violence in America. Superheroes are recognized for their commitment to "truth" and "justice" and are an iconic symbol of American identity. The clash of nationalism and violence is a theme he evokes through this collection.
“I’m using superheroes as a symbol for that sort of idealized notion of violence in this country,” Penner said.
Penner hopes that people who walk through the gallery will grasp the reality of violence and put themselves in the shoes of the victims. According to Penner, even though violence is a problem in America, there is a majority of people who do not experience it; oftentimes, it’s easy for people who do not come face to face with violence to ignore the issue.
“The idea of the scale of all of this is that these figures are bigger than you and they’re more powerful than you and you are sort of the victim,” Penner said. "I want people to sort of think about violence against other people, and from that context."