What does it mean to be a superhero? What are the expectations and the defining traits, and who are they behind the mask? As a full-time single mom, Montreal-based artist Sandra Chevrier definitely has strong opinions on the matter, and she expresses them through colorful artwork layered with ideas and meaning that can take time to fully unpack. Her signature style typically features women wearing masks made out of comic books, but the idea behind these “cages,” as she describes them, is not simply about being a female hero in a male-dominated world. Rather, her portraits are “quite literally torn between the fantastical heroics and iconography of comic books and the harsher underlying tragedy of oppressed female identity and the exposed superficial illusion therein.” This includes the expectation that women be beautiful and perfect in a society that puts limitations on them and often devalues their roles. PRØHBTD spoke with Chevrier to learn more.
In the Cages series, you apply comic book imagery to the faces of women. Individuals can certainly interpret these images differently, but one dominant theme is the unrealistic expectations placed upon women. What are some ways in which unrealistic expectations were placed upon you?
I keep myself busy in many ways—single mom, business woman, artist, the household, romance, errands. It puts a lot on one’s shoulders. Always trying to reach perfection in everything that I am or do causes me a lot of stress and anxiety, forgetting to enjoy life while trying to perform. We overwork ourselves. And in comic books, despite all the playfulness of the thing itself and all the “POW BING BAM,” superheroes are also fragile. For example, when Superman loses his battle against Doomsday, the imageof his red cape tattered and planted in the ground as a fallen flag has intense beauty and incredible power. This is just one example among many others. We are merely human men and women, and we are entitled to the flaws and errors.
When I first looked at the paintings, my takeaway was that the women were superheroes, as opposed to the expectation that they should be. Do you find that men generally have different takeaways from your art than women do?
Women, but also men and children. I choose to work with women portraits because the contrast with the male superhero stereotype is more clear. It is easier to see emotions in a woman’s delicate figure. There is also a certain melancholy in these different faces as if these women experienced a situation they did not wish upon themselves, as if they were “slaves.”
There are a lot of different ways to see my work. I’ve noticed men are more drawn into the comic books at first, while women go right into the emotion behind the portrait. I am more looking to create a reaction, a thought, an emotion. People share their vision of my work with me, and there are always so many different experiences.
If a woman facing high expectations were to see your work, what emotions and feelings would you hope she would experience?
Art to me is not only a way of expression, it is a language on its own. I’ve always used it to release my inner demons. I now try to reflect not only my inner vision but find a matter that will speak to a larger audience.
The way I see it, the work demands to be dissected beyond its surface value. The masks that overlay the portraits are quite literally torn between the fantastical heroics and iconography of comic books and the harsher underlying tragedy of oppressed female identity and the exposed superficial illusion therein. Inside the male-dominated world within the Cages, my subjects denounce the role given to the female counterpart therein, refusing to play the part of seducer or victim. Also, the images used within the “cages” range from scenes of conflict, triumph and defeat. It gives focus to the latter, highlighting the fragility of the superhero, their own struggles and weaknesses, exposing the humanity within the superhuman. Society is asking us to become superheroes; we should allow ourselves to be fragile.
You recently had an exhibit, The Cages; and the Reading Rooms of their Lives, at Thinkspace Gallery in Los Angeles. What is an example of a painting from that series in which the emotions expressed in the mouth and eyes match the action going on in the comic book narrative?
La Cage et le Courage (image above) with vintage Flash Gordon comic books where the narrative shows different scenes reflecting Romance, Hope, Fight, Defeat, Warmth, Danger, Solitude. From what I see in the gaze of the woman, there are various emotions that match all of the action within the mask.
In many ways, you explore the mental and emotional states of superheroes, often capturing them in fragile moments. How has this shaped your idea of what it means to be a hero?
To be a hero means to be able to lift yourself up after defeat.
Is there a particular comic book era that tends to inspire you more than others?
I’d say SANDMAN is one of the most interesting comic books I’ve had the chance to read.
Many of the chosen characters are well-known superheroes like Batman and the Hulk. Do you see yourself eventually diving into more comics, graphic novels and characters outside the Marvel and DC universe?
Yes, why not! I wasn't a comic book fan to start. I started diving into this universe by accident. I mostly find my comic books at the flea market next to my place in Montreal, and when I find some, I look at the images, try to take them out of context and try to see if I could create my own story with it.
Before becoming a full-time artist, you worked as a sushi chef in Montréal. Was that simply a job, or do you have a passion for the culinary arts as well?
I liked working as a chef, it was a great experience, but it was never a passion. I love food, and I’m good at making it, but I’d probably put myself more into it if I had more time on my hands.
The U.S. just had a very divisive presidential election in which the first major-party female candidate lost. If you had to superimpose a hero across Hillary Clinton’s face, who would it be?
I would do a mashup of all the female and male superheroes, 'cause that’s what she did: She united people of all genders and race together.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.