From beaded football players to knitted superhero costumes, artist Mark Newport's work combines textiles and traditionally female-associated art forms with masculine pop iconography to subvert ideas of gender. His art is part of the Innovators & Legends: Generations in Textiles and Fiber exhibition up through April 4 at the CSU University Center for the Arts in Fort Collins, and at 5 p.m. Monday, February 3, he'll give a free lecture entitled "Superheroes, Scars and Rock & Roll" at the Griffin Concert Hall. In advance of his residency, we spoke with Newport, also the head of fibers at the Cranbrook Institute of Arts, about knitting, pop culture and gender.
What made you want to create your series of knitted, life-sized superhero costumes?
Mark Newport: They came from two different foundations. Prior to the costumes, I had been transforming comic-book pages and comic-book covers by embroidering over them, and so I had already been doing work with superheroes and had been interested in how superheroes represent different kinds of ideas about protection and community. In about 2002 or 2003, my daughter was getting old enough to ride her bike off to the park and those kinds of things, and I started wondering about how you take care of somebody who is not there with you, like your child that's vulnerable, and thought about who takes care of people? What kinds of roles do we have that talk about protection?
And superheroes came to mind, because I had been using that and I thought, well, how do you know what a superhero is? Because of what they do and because they have costumes. So I set about making superhero costumes based on the superheroes that I read about when I was a kid in the comic books, and made recreations of those costumes to be my size so that I, or somebody who is an adult, could think about becoming a superhero and what that means.
What does that mean to you? What is the significance of a superhero?
It's complicated, actually. I think on the one hand, there's the superficial or surface ideas of strength and power of doing good or serving other people, of fighting evil. But anybody who has watched any of the Batman movies or any of the other superhero movies knows there's a dark side there. This is somebody instituting or enforcing the law in a way they see fit and don't always adhere to all the letters of the law or follow all the rules. Sometimes that goes overboard. It's a double-edged sword.
You also do beaded images of sports figures -- what's the idea behind those?
In 1995 to 1997 I was transforming trading cards by sewing beads on them, and that started with a series of football player cards. I was interested in the costumes and also how the image of the football player reflects something that I actually aspired to be. I wanted to play football when I was a kid and played, but not very well. Beading and other textile processes reflect the kind of ways I work now, and they also have that male/female dynamic going on between the two materials. I thought of the sewing of beads on the football cards as a way of dressing up the football player in a way that was equal to when a woman dresses up. It's the most exaggerated view of male or female that we might have in the culture, and I was interested in that tension. I also liked the idea that football cards are collectibles. People who are into it really pay attention to the idea that there's a value to those things, and then I was transforming them -- some might say damaging them -- by sewing beads onto them. And that immediately changed the value because I put them in an art context and that has a different kind of association of cultural and financial value, and I was intrigued by how that works.
Your lecture also includes scars and rock and roll -- how do those fit in?
For the past few months I've been working on a series of embroidered pieces that use record covers and other kinds of pop-culture images -- posters of rock-and-roll people and other folks -- and I transform those iconic record covers through embroidery onto different kinds of fabric and combine this idea of how we think about pop culture as something we associate with or identify ourselves with. The scars part comes from another group of embroideries, where I've been recreating on fabric embroidered patches of skin where I have scars.
Why do you choose to use fibers as your medium?
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The costumes in particular, I use knitting because I'm interested in how textile processes are associated generally with the feminine, women, and how the imagery from pop culture that I've been drawn to -- superheroes in particular -- while there are women in the superhero pantheon, the men are usually hyper-muscular and sort of the biggest extreme of the strong, silent, somewhat bad-boy type. I'm interested in how those two contradictory things come together, so the textiles provide a foil to the pop-culture images. Also, with the knitting I'm really intrigued about the way a process that's as time-consuming as knitting contradicts or plays against the action of the superhero, the intensity and the physicality and how that makes intention in the work. Additionally, when I was in art school I started as a painter, but I was fortunate enough to take a class in fiber and realized that the way I thought about making art and a lot of the way textile processes work made sense to me and felt right for making work. I started a long time ago using weaving and other kinds of textile processes, and just have continued to use them in different ways as my work has developed.