In the pages of comic books and, finally, on the screens at megaplexes, Wonder Woman has her fair share of superpowers. She would — she is a demigoddess. She’s also become muse to New York-based artist Christopher Larson, who’s been exploring how the powers of myth and legend — both ancient and modern — reach out into our world. In the process, he discovered one more power Wonder Woman can add to her list — healing.
That’s one of a few themes Larson tackled in “Winds of Change,” his debut art show in May of this year. It’s a celebration of super women — Wonder Woman, Greek goddesses, Anne Frank, and Joan of Arc figure heavily — but it’s a collection that seeks to encourage introspection as much as it does awe.
It’s a thesis that presented an early problem for Larson. He’s working under the name Notos, the Greek god of the southern wind — a capricious god known for bringing fog and rain during harvest season and hot, smothering winds in the summer. Like he does with much of Greek mythology, Larson plays fast and loose with established canon. To him, the god is a bringer of change, and while those changes might not always be welcome, they can be overcome.
There was also the issue of the name of the god itself. It’s actually spelled Notus, but that was never going to fly — it could be read as ‘not us,’ which is far from what Larson wants to communicate. His collection of works are certainly more about us than the legendary figures — many pieces have been crafted to prod us mortals to realize our own capacity for heroism.
Larson expresses this idea most directly in “Time to Reflect.” Old World War era posters of Wonder Woman and Joan of Arc are placed in front of mirrors that bring the viewer into the piece. The posters exhort women of America to contribute to the war effort, but the Wonder Woman image in particular takes on a different meaning in a modern setting, perched above the infinitely malleable message, “Women of America, save your country.”
It’s probably not a stretch to say that Larson would like viewers to walk away from his show feeling like they can be heroes in their own right. Superhuman strength might not be in the offing, but plain human strength isn’t something he thinks should be underestimated, especially among vulnerable groups — something Larson is familiar with. Larson, who is gay, came of age during the AIDS crisis in the United States. The experience made him keenly aware of the need for allies and community, and with them the kind of everyday heroism badly needed during an unrelenting crisis ignored by the powerful.
But, it wasn’t exactly his own experiences that brought Larson to art. Not coming from an artistic background, he decided to dive in after seeing Michael Mandiberg’s “FDIC Insured,” in which Mandiberg laser etched the logos of failed banks onto investment guidebooks. The idea of art being able to speak to such a wide audience — who wasn’t affected by the recession? — set him to thinking about what he might have to say creatively. An iPad was his first canvas, and his experimentation ultimately gave rise to Notos.
Even then, Larson wasn’t even thinking of art as a way to confront his personal trauma. Larson was the victim of sexual assault at 19 years old, trauma he was never quite able to heal from. That changed through his art by way of a somewhat unexpected subject — Medusa. The fearsome snake-haired woman that turned onlookers to stone appeared as something else entirely to Larson. In some tellings of the myth, Medusa is a victim of rape, assaulted by Poseidon and punished by Athena for the crime of being victimized in her temple. Suddenly, the myth becomes all too familiar to survivors of sexual assault like Larson — one of being victimized, blamed, and vilified.
Larson paints Medusa as a protector in “Dancing on My Own,” pairing the work with the more personal “Gorgon Transformation” — Wonder Woman’s golden lasso. Hovering above “Dancing on My Own” and a raised mirror bearing a quote from Alice Sebold, another rape survivor (“Save yourself or remain unsaved.”), Wonder Woman’s lasso is there, as it always is, to reveal truth — that victims aren’t responsible for what happened to them, and they do have power.
The knot in the lasso is where Larson found his own truth. The only part of the lasso that isn’t gold, that knot represents Larson’s own trauma, while the rest of the golden lasso represents everything coming from his art — a desire to use his work and experience to offer his strength to others. He’s not just doing that with his art — Larson contributed proceeds from his show’s openings to a number of charities, including End Rape on Campus.
But, in a show that emphasizes the heroism of the legendary and ordinary alike, Wonder Woman still stands tall as Larson’s muse. It’s no surprise to those closest to him — he’s been a big fan of Wonder Woman since he was young, Today, he sees her as an ideal of beauty that transcends physical attractiveness. Wonder Woman’s power and sense of justice are just as important aspects of her beauty, which led Larson to one of his more striking works, “Birth of a Demigoddess.” In “Birth,” Larson swaps in Wonder Woman for Aphrodite in Botticelli’s early Renaissance masterpiece, “The Birth of Venus.” With Wonder Woman represented as the goddess of love and beauty, Larson presents an alternative take on beauty — the kind of alternative he sees when he hears stories of young girls seeing Wonder Woman and wanting to become heroines in their own right.
It’s that everyday heroism that makes the choice of Greek mythology as subject matter such an inspired one — Greek gods and goddesses were notoriously flawed, appearing in personality more human than divine. Those flaws make the otherwise superhuman accessible, allowing anyone from a kindergarten student to a survivor of sexual assault to recognize that the best parts of those mythological figures can be reflected in everyday life. That’s the kind of beauty Larson would like to see more of now and in the future.