New York magazine art critic, Jerry Saltz wrote on Facebook recently,
“Get to Work! Man-up! Woman-up! Stop Procrastinating big Babies!”
To which artist Erik Hanson responded,
“Just like Bluto, get to the gym and work those muscles so you can make some money at the Circus!!”
Hanson’s not been slacking. His multitude of Bluto paintings are currently installed in Two Years of Bluto at Marlbrough Contemporary gallery in NYC.
(Do I need to explain who Bluto is? He’s Popeye‘s burly, bullying arch-nemesis always out to get his Olive Oil…)
Ramzi Fawaz is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison is the author of The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics and co-edited the Queer About Comics special issue of American Literature last June.
David Getsy is a Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and editor of Queer for the Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art book series.
Here’s an excerpt of Fawaz and Getsy’s conversation, conducted over email in December, about Hanson’s Bluto series and their multiple variations of interpretations,
David Getsy: …I’ll dive in and say that — whatever else they do — Hanson’s paintings immediately jumped out at me as a queer struggle with deep psychic attachments. They pore attention and affection on the villainized figure of Bluto, and it’s hard to decide when looking at the paintings (especially all together) where the love ends and where the misgivings start. The erotic pull of Bluto’s exaggerations is evident throughout even the most abstracting of Hanson’s paintings. Interwoven with this, however, is a critical and skeptical understanding of the limits of Bluto’s overplayed and phobically clichéd performance of masculinity. But isn’t that already part of Bluto’s role in the Popeye cartoons? For all the antagonism of Bluto, he is always needed by Popeye as the foil for the different version of masculinity that Popeye is understood to perform. What do we make of this preening bully?
Ramzi Fawaz: I think what is revealed in this series is that the the love and the misgiving we have toward Bluto’s “phobically clichéd performance of masculinity” are precisely the same thing. In these paintings, Hanson puts his finger on a sort of melancholic attachment that both gay men and the society at large have to the figure of hyper-masculinity — that ideal that both magnetizes our desire and constantly hurts us, reminding us we are never enough (never big enough, powerful enough, strong enough to be “real” men or desirable to those men who seemingly fit the ideal). We (both the particular subculture of gay men, but also a patriarchal culture as a whole) “love” men—some of us pursue them erotically, others symbolically or behaviorally worship at their imputed power—but that love is often exactly what undermines our own self-image, promotes rigid gender norms, and reproduces patriarchy.
Part of the brilliance of these pieces, to my mind, is that they capture both what is so erotically appealing about Bluto—his baldly brutish masculinity—but also what is so tragic about his version of manliness, while never feeling sorry for, or making Bluto into a martyr. Bluto is wounded throughout the series, beaten up, given a black eye, made vulnerable to the erotic gaze, but he is not merely an icon of wounded masculinity. Rather his form of masculinity is painful, these images tell us. It wounds us all. And yet, we keep looking. We keep replaying that version of manliness in countless iterations. What exactly is the effect of this endless repetition, the variation on a theme, or ceaseless unfolding of Bluto into a seemingly indefinite future?
DG: Repetition is the key to these paintings, and it’s no surprise that when Hanson started showing them to people he aimed for a sort of visual overload. He installed them all clustered and stacked together as a means to reinforce and demonstrate his serial practice of grappling with this image. Hanson has talked about how the character of Bluto was both fascinating and fear-inducing, and it became a capacitating image for homoerotic investment and for anxieties about the queer transgression of normativity. Bluto was a conflicted model for his desire and adolescent relationship to gender. Returning to this stereotype in adulthood, Hanson has wrestled with its continued power even as he recognizes all that there is to criticize about it. Repetition is the form that this agonism has taken.
RF: Hanson’s obsessive repetition of Bluto, and the minute variations in his appearance, speaks to that very singular or particular experience of a reader—perhaps a young boy who will develop an erotic attachment to other boys, or a tomboy (or perhaps transgender girl) who identifies with a powerful male physique, or a wife who projects her husband, or a fantasized lover, onto Bluto, and on and on. Hanson’s expansion of the series into a range of iconic comics scenarios, including the explosive battle clouds where stars, fists, arms, and legs fly outward from a ball of dust indicating a fight sequence, the beach scenes in which Popeye and Bluto lay out on the sand, at times relaxing, at other times displaying their bodies, reminds us of the countless images and icons that comics offered readers to which they might attach their expanding fantasies.
As the tragic muscle queen Malone famously states in Andrew Holleran’s 1978 gay literary classic Dancer from the Dance, “given enough time, everyone will sleep with everyone else”; and so too, given enough space, a sequence can account for, or represent, every desiring possibility.
Hanson’s Two Years of Bluto runs through March 23, 2018 at Marlborough Contemporary in New York.