Hero Worship: Superheroes and suits of flowers at Mindy Solomon

The St. Pete gallery explores the guises of masculinity.

While it may be true that every man — and probably every woman — has fantasized about being a superhero at some point (come on, at least a mutant X-person, right?), few of us possess any of the required skills (the leaping of tall buildings in a single bound, the rescuing of damsels in distress, the wearing of stretchy superhero costumes, etc.). And then there's the knitting ...

This last and little-known superhero skill can be one of the most difficult to master. Michigan-based artist Mark Newport has it licked, and he's got the purled and cabled superhero suits to prove it. Four of them are on view at Mindy Solomon Gallery in downtown St. Petersburg, where they hang suspended from the gallery ceiling, part of a group exhibition called Hero Worship devoted to artists' explorations of masculinity in various guises.

In Newport's case, his sculptures are literally disguises. However, he's the only person that wears them in public. (There's no saying what his collectors do at home; Newport doesn't ask.) And once you've seen the artist — a boyish-looking middle-aged dad — sporting one of his granny-sweater-cum-superhero-jumpsuits, it's not likely that your heart will again palpitate at the appearance of Sweaterman (as several of his artwork-alter egos are titled).

The tension between superman and lovable schlub — hero or anti-hero? — is one Newport plays to the hilt. The suits, which he hand-knits using skeins of acrylic yarn ("the cheapest, nastiest stuff you can get at Walmart," he explains), split the difference between embarrassingly earnest adult pajamas and way-cool technical achievements in an utterly improbable medium. "Ribbed 2," for instance, resonates with punning irony. The silhouette of the piece — a turquoise one-piece composed of a knitted top, protective gloved sleeves, a mysterious ski-mask hood and stretchy ribbed leggings — suggests a potbellied daddy longlegs, though its superhero title plays up strength and virility.

Newport began making the suits in 2003, inspired by post-9/11 rhetoric about homeland security and the experience of being father to two small children. (One suit, "Naftaman," gently nudges the hot topic of border security by combining variegated yarns manufactured in red-white-and-blue and "mexicali" color palettes.) The gallery has no plans for Newport to perform during the exhibit. (He says it's just as well; the presence of a hooded man knitting has proven in the past to drive gallery visitors away rather than draw them in.) But gallery-goers can get a sense of his imaginary adventures through a series of comic book-style photo illustrations in the exhibition.

"Any suggestions of extraordinary exploits are limited to the Photoshop-derived variety," he says.

Beyond the overt playfulness of Newport's suits, other works in Hero Worship probe more enigmatic territory. A single triptych of photographs by David Hilliard is a cruel tease (as in, where's more?) but at least it's a taste. The three frames of "Rock Bottom" show Hilliard and his father wading into a crystalline lake in Maine, its surface eerily quiet as the two men stand chest deep in water. If you didn't know the figures were father and son, you might suppose they were the same man — surreally depicted as both old and young selves united in the lake — since each wears a tattoo of two blue birds across his chest.

The absence of further work by Hilliard (an established artist whose work belongs to premier American museum collections) leaves Jeremy Chandler, a Tampa-based photographer who is one of the area's strongest emerging talents, to carry most of the photographic weight of the show. This he does with three striking images of a man camouflaged beneath a ghillie suit made of wildflowers in a field in rural north Florida.

If you've never heard of a ghillie suit, you've probably seen one — a fabric poncho of sorts covered with foliage that helps a hunter or military sniper blend in seamlessly with his natural surroundings. A true ghillie suit, like the one Chandler crafted for his photographs, is a painstaking effort of fidelity to a particular patch of landscape, a site-specific garment literally made up of its surroundings. The oddness of a ghillie suit made of flowers (as opposed to camo cloth, moss and twigs) transforms the trope of hunter-in-the-woods — a theme of Chandler's earlier work — into a more poetic merging of man and landscape, alternately erotic, goofy and slightly ominous.

Then there's the outright ominousness of Pavel Amromin's saccharine ceramic figurines, small-scale sculptures that might not be out of place at first glance as kitsch on a fireplace mantle — until you realize that the pale pink puppies cavorting amidst gilded porcelain swirls are engaged in acts of simulated violence. Wielding rifles as they tromp about in oversized combat boots, the dogs play at rape and murder with grins on their faces and miniature pink-tipped erections perkily peeking out. Puppies, alternately fawning and vicious, are "an apt metaphor for an 18-year-old boy," Amromin says.

That the combination of cuteness and repellence in the sculptures is a touch stomach-turning (yet fascinating) is kind of the point. A series of single figures — a lone puppy soldier whose arms have been amputated into nubs — in blue, green, pink and yellow plastic versions are toys for grown-ups with a taste for the depressing and the exquisite.

"The overarching theme of the work is the beautiful presentation of horrible things," Amromin says.

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