Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Is pro wrestling fixed?

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Four Solo Exhibitions
May 12—July 1, 2007

Four of the six artists chosen in Real Art Ways 2006 Open Call for emerging artists have solo shows in the main gallery at Real Art Ways. (One of the other two, Heather Beard, had a show in Real Art Ways' Real Room that just closed. The sixth artist, Sabrina Marques, showed her paintings in the Real Room the month before Beard.)

Shaun Leonardo makes art out of the eternal questions of "who am I?" and "who can I transform myself into?" The answer to the second question is only partially answered by the photos, objects and video depicting Leonardo in the role of "El Conquistador." As El conquistador, the buff Leonardo dons a Mexican wrestling mask, a 14-foot red velvet and silk cape and bloodstained painter's pants.

Four large and alternately black and white and color photos portray Leonardo aka El Conquistador posed in the entrance to a bank vault, on a snowy hillside, in a dark narrow hallway or, more formally, in a studio setting with a wide, gaudy World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Champion's belt. One wall showcases a series of C-prints of Leonardo in performance as "El Conquistador vs. the Invisible Man." In these spectacles, he mimes a vigorous, acrobatic wrestling match against an invisible opponent. In the video room, a DVD loop plays showing the performances.

Using—embodying—a cartoon figure from popular culture, Leonardo, in effect, wrestles with the concept of identity. For someone like me, who has no particular interest in professional wrestling, American, Mexican or otherwise, it's a surprisingly supple metaphor rich with symbolism. For Leonardo, the character and performance are not ironic cutouts. He wrestled in college and is a serious devotee of the theatric and masculine acting-out of professional wrestling.

As an American of Guatemalan and Dominican ancestry, he adopted the Mexican-style mask in part as an identification with his Latin heritage. But it is also in some measure a critique of the way dark-skinned wrestlers were depicted in the American TV matches of his youth. According to an article in the Hartford Courant, Leonardo was, understandably, appalled at the racial stereotypes in American pro wrestling.

The term for wrestler in the Latin context is luchador. This strengthens the metaphor: the root "lucha" is Spanish for "struggle." Leonardo's art is a multi-layered struggle, ripe with symbolism. The mask that both hides and constructs identity. The constant tension faced by individual identity within socially constructed space and culturally determined (particularly pop culture) iconography. There is the struggle over what it means to be masculine and the tension between ethnic pride and affection for an American pop culture that views and treats you as an outsider. And there are the back flips across the boundaries of what is "Art" with a capital "A" and what is entertainment. (In the video and photos of his performance we see audience reactions ranging from unmitigated delight to determined skepticism.) And finally, there is the Invisible Man, who symbolizes his struggle with invisibility in society, akin to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But it could also be read as that part of Leonardo and all of us that is both external and internal. And when we finally get our Invisible Man pinned to the mat, isn't it always the case that he/she executes the perfect move and slips free?

Nadya Volicer has created a site-specific installation. Entering "Kite Walk" is like stepping into a phantasmagoric forest. Volicer has taken the found materials of advertising circulars, envelopes, colored paper, buttons and more to create a setting that has the feeling of both an exterior park-like environment and an interior architectural space. A short entry path feeds into a square path. Dozens of large and small diamond-shaped kites are suspended from the ceiling by ultra-light fishing line. They are anchored to the ground by buttons. The ground itself is formed out of gently rolling mounds covered over, quilt-like, with paper.

The kites are like trees, fixed in place but also gently moving in the breeze, seemingly alive. The pathway is composed of the same materials but is sewn together in tight linear knots, given it the texture of gravel. The materials, processed from the natural world, are recycled into a simulacrum of the natural world. It is inviting and colorful but ultimately fragile and temporary.

With her three sculptures, Jillian Conrad is interested in using "sculpture as a tool for creating connections between the ordinary stuff of everyday life and the singularity of human experience." The smallest, "Gully," is charming in a New Age kind of way. A nondescript cardboard box sits on the gray concrete floor, one corner propped up on a wood block. A profusion of shiny sequins are layered in the center between two inner folds. An overhead light shines into the box on a diagonal, reflecting shiny phantoms onto the white wall. It illustrates, Conrad notes in her artist statement, that "beneath every opaque, anonymous surface there lies an essential luminescence." (Does this include Dick Cheney?)

The other two sculptures, "Heavy Light" and "Lay of the Land" use, respectively, charcoal, foam and paint and wood, plaster and paint to model natural forms. With "Heavy Light," cut foam panels are painted black and covered wit coarse and fine charcoal. Occupying one corner of the space they create an imposing silhouette. The "light" in this case would be the foam material. But the richness of the blacks, the texture of the charcoal and the height of the peak lend an imposing sense of weight to the form—some heavy rock.

Fay Ku's "Surface Tension" is a series of drawings in the East Asian tradition. Like Leonardo, Ku is an American of non-European background whose art is informed by that fact. On large sheets of white paper, the drawings are mostly pencil with touches of watercolor. Over the series of 10 drawings, Ku portrays children—specifically girl children—in a progression that advances in technology while deepening in cruelty.

The characters are in boats, fishing. They are at sea, figuratively and literally. It is only in the third panel, where the sailors have harvested an abundance of fish, that a temporary harmony prevails. From a solitary small dinghy to increasingly sophisticated vessels, the characters act out scenarios of plunder, murder, war, repression and rape. There is a cuteness to the imagery that is belied by the savagery of the situations. In one drawing, five girls chortle at the tableau of two other girls hanging limp from the masts of their boat. But the fate of the five girls may already be determined. The individual boats in which each is seated are shaped like coffins.

The backgrounds of most of the drawings are empty. The exception is the final drawing. In this image, a lone girl in a yellow rain slicker stands astride a paddle wheel facing down a cresting wave. It is a final stand as the angry sea rises up to reclaim its own.

The answer, by the way, to the title of this post is, "Yes."


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