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About Chad R. Penner

Chad R. Penner is a drawer and superhero enthusiast from Roanoke, VA. Penner graduated from George Mason University with a BA in Art and Visual Technology with a concentration in drawing in the spring of 2015. He continued his education in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina and graduated in 2018.  His work examines dynamics of violence and power in America using superhero imagery in large-scale figurative drawings and charcoal portraits.  Penner’s artwork exists at the intersection between drawing, politics, superhero imagery, and social commentary. He currently teaches painting and drawing at the University of South Carolina Beaufort in Beaufort, SC.

My work explores the relationship between the idea of American exceptionalism and America’s intimate relationship with and affinity towards violence. I allegorize these concepts using popular superheroes, such as Superman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman, which function as metaphors for an idealized America and America as a global “superpower.” In turn, these superheroes epitomize the superhero genre’s emblematic theme of resolution through conflict, paralleling America’s own historical and cultural association with violence. I discuss America’s obsession with violence in relation to its own idealized identity in drawings that combine superhero imagery and social commentary.


Current events and the present sociopolitical climate are the main factors driving my work. The divisions within American society intensified by the Trump administration and the upcoming presidential election along with a pronounced increase in civil violence over issues of race and class have culminated in a heightened sense of fear as to the state of the nation. In turn, this sociopolitical unrest is underscored by the narrative of American exceptionalism, a notion that denies America’s own failings and inequities while reinforcing zealous nationalism. As such, the goal of my work is to contrast these opposing ideas through the allegory of America as superpower using popular superhero imagery.


Aside from the obvious play between superpowers and America as a “superpower,” the superhero is an American phenomenon that encapsulates the idealistic notions of American exceptionalism along with the nation’s time-honored tradition of resolution through violence. The synthesis of the iconography of American superheroes with the pressing issues of sociopolitical unrest and systemic violence results in artwork that questions idealistic notions of America and its relationship to violence. In turn, the adaptation of the cultural phenomenon of superheroes functions as a bridge between the low art of pop culture and the fine art of drawing, crafting a visual language that is accessible and legible to the average viewer. 


I work with charcoal, pastels, and chalk on paper to create two distinct series of works. My early works are dark, atmospheric, monumental drawings which depict violent acts between superheroes and victims and examine the historical or social implications of violence outside of the act of violence itself. These figures are life-size or larger, towering over and overwhelming the viewer, implicating them in a powerless position as victims or bystanders. These works contend that violence is inherent in America’s structures of power, in which the viewer is also an implicit participant.

My recent work takes a more satirical tone by combining contemporary political figures with superhero costumes in charcoal and pastel portraits. The juxtaposition of these politicians and their ill-fitting costumes implies a failure to live up to the heroic status to which contemporary society often holds them. In turn, these works criticize the cult of personality built around contemporary politicians, especially President Trump and his allies. This series is at once an indictment of the administration’s populist façade and a cathartic joke at its expense.

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