CLEVELAND, Ohio – Part of the allure of superhero comics in this digital age is that they represent a persistent cultural demand for hand-drawn images of well-muscled human bodies in action. Biff! Bam! Pow!
And with precedents reaching back to the muscular gods and heroes of Renaissance and ancient Greek and Roman art, superhero comics have a distinguished pedigree.
Yet in translating Superman from two to three dimensions for a proposed monument to be erected on the Cleveland lakefront, Lakewood sculptor David Deming has fallen short of the mark, whether of classical art or that of a moderately competent comic-strip artist.
To judge from Plain Dealer photographs and a video of a large-scale fiberglass mockup in Deming’s studio, the Man of Steel would look very much like a man of rubber or plastic or maybe even the fake muscle cushions worn by Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey in the Hans and Franz “pump you up” skits on “Saturday Night Live.”
I’ll detail the sculpture’s demerits in a moment, but first, some background.
According to my colleague, Plain Dealer reporter Michael Sangiacomo, public relations and advertising consultant Howard “Hutch” Stoller, of Mayfield, approached Deming six years ago on behalf of a group of Superman enthusiasts and suggested that if the sculptor would create a mockup for a monument, Stoller would launch a campaign to raise the money to get it built.
The idea would be to celebrate Superman’s Cleveland roots as the 1933 brainchild of Glenville High School students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
A 12-foot-long version of Deming’s Superman would be cast in steel and mounted atop a 30- to 35-foot-high pylon, which would be located at the northern end of the $25 million pedestrian bridge planned to connect the Mall to North Coast Harbor.
In addition, three life-sized statues of Siegel, Shuster and Joanne Siegel, the wife of Jerry Siegel who served as an early model for Lois Lane, would be placed at the base of the pylon, gazing up at Superman as if they were exclaiming: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”
Sangiacomo reported last Wednesday that the local enthusiasts have spoken with Warner Brothers/DC Comics, the company that publishes Superman comics and produces the Superman films, and that the firm has not objected to the Cleveland project.
Sangiacomo also reported that Cleveland developer Richard Pace, chosen by the city to develop a part of the downtown lakefront where the statue might land, is firmly behind the project. He also quoted Pace as having said that City Planning Director Fred Collier approves of the location. Collier could not be reached immediately on Monday for confirmation.
With a spot next to I.M. Pei’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and with the Lake Erie horizon for a backdrop, the sculpture ought to be a point of pride in every sense.
Yet the published photographs of the Deming statue make it look stiff and anatomically awkward in ways that raise serious questions about the entire project.
It could be argued that it’s unfair to judge a three-dimensional work based on photographs, but in effect, that is what the public is being asked to do. Images of the sculpture have been disseminated in the context of an effort to make it a reality.
So why bother raising a million dollars for mediocrity? Why devote prime lakefront real estate to a conception that’s clearly second-rate?
Additionally, why proceed when no design has been presented publicly for the landscaping and plaza the sculpture would require to work successfully as a total ensemble?
Finally, is this the best that Cleveland — a great city of the arts — can do when it comes to celebrating its cultural patrimony?
I know I’m not the only person to question the Superman proposal. Readers heaped invective on Deming’s sculpture in comments posted at the bottom of Sangiacomo’s original story on cleveland.com.
The reaction was not entirely surprising.
A 1967 bachelor of fine arts graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art who earned a master of fine arts degree at Cranbrook in Michigan in 1970, Deming has had a distinguished record as an academic administrator and as a teacher in the visual arts.
His work as an artist, on the other hand, hasn’t ranked with that of the most distinguished current and former faculty at his local alma mater, the Cleveland Institute of Art, including the geometric abstractionist Julian Stanczak or the late goldsmith John Paul Miller, both figures of international importance.
Deming taught at the University of Texas, Austin, from 1972 to 1998 and chaired the university’s Department of Art and Art History from 1991 to 1996. He was interim dean and then dean of the College of Fine Arts there in 1996-98.
Deming then returned to Cleveland where he served from 1998 to 2010 as president of the Cleveland Institute of Art, also known as CIA, where he helped set in motion the $75 million expansion and renovation now being completed at Uptown in University Circle by his successor, Grafton Nunes.
Throughout his tenure at CIA, Deming continued to work as a sculptor, which he viewed as a way of showing how creative work could complement his core duties.
No argument there. Yet as a sculptor, Deming has worked in several contrasting styles with mixed results and without any logical connection between them.
For a variety of corporate and nonprofit clients, Deming has sculpted portrait busts, bas reliefs or full-length representations of important local figures such as Peter B. Lewis, Viktor Schreckengost, Jane Scott and Stephanie Tubbs Jones.
His style in such works echoes the kitsch academicism of Seward Johnson, famous for stiffly conjured park-bench effigies of newspaper readers that have become a cliche in many cities.
Deming has also created large-scale geometric abstractions that might have been cutting-edge amid the heavy metal modes of the 1970s, but which now look anachronistic.
More successfully, Deming has created modestly scaled assemblage sculptures of animals, particularly dogs, made by cleverly welding scraps and bits of metal in ways that are ingenious, humorous and fun. I think they’re his best work — and are truly good.
Deming’s pursuit of multiple styles may represent the postmodern view that all things are possible in art now because it’s passé to think of art history as a forward-moving sequence of movements and “isms.”
But while there’s nothing wrong with sculpting portraits, Deming’s figurative work, to judge by various pieces installed around the city or visible in photos on his website, is workmanlike and average in skill and characterization.
One reason is that his portrayals of the human body never seem entirely convincing. Which brings us to Superman. What’s wrong with the sculpture? Plenty.
- The pose: Deming portrays Superman in flight with his left knee forward, his right arm and fist extended and the left arm and fist cocked back. The pose looks incredibly stiff, as if Superman had a ramrod in place of a spine.
- Anatomy: Superman as often depicted in the comics has a brawny, football-player build, with a V-shaped torso and plenty of muscles that look “cut.” The flesh in Deming’s Superman looks flaccid, not taut, and the muscles are not clearly delineated. The arms and shoulders are awkwardly joined to the pectoral muscles and the torso. The fists are especially bad, with their thumbs placed clumsily atop the curled fingers instead of more naturally wrapped around the knuckles. Such details count.
- Expression: A full-scale clay model of Superman’s head sports a stiff grin, as if the hero were holding still a long time for a photo. And because of the rigid pose chosen by the artist, Superman will aim his gaze down at the ground, not forward toward some imaginary objective. It’s hard to imagine that this is the most expressive way to depict the character.
- The cape: A proper cape should be an occasion for bravura modeling with plenty of drapery folds whipped by the wind. Deming’s cape resembles a taut sail full of air — and devoid of interest.
- Supporting cast: The figures of Shuster and the Siegels are as mediocre as that of Superman, and bring to mind the figures in University Circle’s less than admirable Cancer Survivors Monument, a $1 million 1996 gift from Kansas City insurance magnate Richard Bloch.
Apart from the problems with the Superman sculpture itself, something seems off about the idea that the city would accept an idea for a monument on the lakefront regardless of its artistic quality.
If the Deming proposal serves a purpose, it should be to get a conversation going about how Cleveland could get a truly terrific Superman sculpture — one worth the time, effort, money and location.
I’d propose a competition to see who in the city, state, region or nation could come up with the best proposal for a Superman monument for Cleveland. And how about assembling a panel of regional museum directors and curators to judge the entries?
Furthermore, the project should entail a complete conception, not just a collection of isolated sculptures with landscape and urban design treated as afterthoughts.
The city of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra and many other globally respected institutions should demand no less, especially because the world will be watching.