Just in time for the city’s Pride celebration this weekend, Atlanta visual artist Philip Bonneau brings his 40-piece homage to childhood, the fourth and final “issue” of his Heroes & Villains series to life at Suite Spot in West Midtown. For a generation of kids raised on 1980s Saturday morning cartoons, Disney animated features and comic books, this exhibition is best viewed with a heaping bowl of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs doused with cold milk. Just one week into the month-long show, half of Bonneau’s photographs are already sold (he’s donating proceeds from the show to Lost –n- Found Youth, Inc., the city’s year-old nonprofit whose mission is to take LGBT youth off the streets and into more permanent housing). Throughout the exhibition, Bonneau imaginatively recreates his favorite Marvel and DC comic book characters, Disney villains and many beloved Saturday morning TV favorites.
There’s He-Man from He-Man and Masters of the Universe sporting a leather harness, Jem of Jem & the Holograms in a private moment (the portrait is hanging in the Suite Spot ladies room) and in Bonneau’s world, literary and film rock star boy wizard Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar is transformed into a face painted Ziggy Stardust. The photographer himself shows up in a self-portrait, playing the dual role of the Hulk and his alter ego, gamma ray belted scientist Dr. Bruce Banner.
“This whole series has been about me discovering myself as an artist while playing with a subject matter I knew well,” Bonneau explains while granting Atlanta magazine a tour of the exhibition. “I was a complete Marvel fanatic. I am the epitome of my grandfather’s child. He introduced me to all this. He’s all about the 1930s movie serials and he’s an avid comic book collector. He has the first comic book appearances of Superman and Batman in his library. As a kid, I got to see them. He has a child’s sense of wonder to him. Growing up around him, everything became a game. He passed that love on to me. Ultimately, this show represents play time for me and hopefully, for everyone else. Most of my models are my closest friends. I’ve only been told ‘no’ once. I wanted one of my muses to play Catwoman in a giant litter box. That didn't happen. Most of these people have never done a photo shoot in their lives. It’s more fun with real people. We laugh a lot at my shoots.”
Bonneau’s work springs to life largely aided by the imagination of the viewer. Without a lavish budget, he uses found objects and everyday items to create his artistic universe. “If you look closely, it’s cardboard, it’s about using towels for capes,” he says. “I wanted to capture that creativity we all had as kids when we brought these characters to life for play. I’m not interested in using Photoshop effects. It’s about play and pretend. When children look at these works, they don’t see the cardboard or the technical limitations, they just see their favorite characters. When adults come in, if they regress back to their childhoods looking at my photos, I know I’ve done my job.”
For issue three of the Heroes & Villains series, friends and fans raised $16,000 on Kickstarter to finance the comic book in Bonneau’s head. The bonus? If you donated to the campaign, you got to select who you wanted to be during the photo shoot. “Begging on social media is one of the most humbling things you can do in life,” he recalls. “In the final week of the Kickstarter campaign, I was only halfway to my goal. I had to do a lot of soul searching.”
Bonneau also took a photo of himself, naked, holding up a carefully positioned sign that read: “I’m not a model but this is my dream. Believe in me. I need your help.” He ended up raising $7,000 in three days. “I was ready to make that sign as small as possible too if it meant realizing this dream,” he says, laughing. “I had people who were so moved by this, they offered to reach out on my behalf. At one point, I had complete strangers, naked in my house, posing with signs to get this project funded. It was surreal but very touching. People believed in this series before it was ever shot.”
Bonneau’s homage to Disney, meanwhile, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. There’s Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. With a twist. “All my Disney villainesses are portrayed by drag queens,” he explains. “Who better to play these over the top characters who steal the show? I’m much more intrigued by the Disney villainesses. I mean, let’s face it, most of them were absolutely crazy, totally bad bitches. I only ever shot one princess, Ariel [from The Little Mermaid] and she only interested me because she was a hoarder. The dress on Ursula is the first one I've ever made and it’s constructed completely out of trash bags and bubble wrap."
In Heroes & Villains, a perplexed Woman Woman is clutching a key fob in a parking garage. Explains Bonneau: “I always pictured Wonder Woman as this drag queen leaving Backstreet at 6 or 7 in the morning. She’s a little liquored up and she can’t find her invisible jet!” X-Men antihero Magneto is sporting a heavy helmet made entirely out of bulky silverware. But look closer. The helmet is actually constructed from 450 pieces of faux silver painted plastic cutlery. “It required a lot of patience with a glue gun,” Bonneau says. “The Kroger on Howell Mill hates me now. I bought up every pack of straws and every piece of silverware off the shelves to bring this show to life.”
Bonneau’s hope is that his show reflects one of the big life lessons he absorbed while flipping through colorful issues of Batman and Spider-man as a kid: “Comic books teach us to accept people who are different. The original X-Men series, for example, was set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. Whether you’re dealing with your sexuality or your own individuality while trying to figure out who you are, the lesson is this: You’re not alone in the world.”
Heroes & Villains runs through October 25 at Suite Spot, 1465 Chattahoochee Avenue, Suite 450 in West Midtown.
For more info, visit the Philip Bonneau Photography Facebook page.