Enmascarados

The Pump Project & Pink, Austin

Through November
by Álvaro Ibarra

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      Enrique Martínez
      Tag Team Death-Match
      2008
      Courtesy the artist

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      The exhibition Enmascarados: An Homage to Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling) had a limited showing at The Pump Project Art Complex last month. The three-day event featured nineteen works by eleven Latino artists from the United States, Mexico and Venezuela, all referencing some aspect of Mexican wrestling. If you missed it, there is now an opportunity to see a month-long encore showing at Pink Salon & Gallery.

      The concept for the show came from Los Angeles artist Angel Quesada. He did not curate so much as orchestrate the exhibition, petitioning fellow artists to contribute works as well as their time and resources. Quesada describes the process for the realization of Enmascarados as a “hustle,” as opposed to a traditional curatorial endeavor. There are inherent risks, such as inconsistency, in hustling an exhibition into existence But despite Quesada’s communal approach, the eclectic collection of works in Enmascarados achieves a certain harmony due to the spectacular nature of the subject matter.

      As a spectacle, professional wrestling offers itself up to be scrutinized by the general public. Roland Barthes described the wrestling as possessing a grandiloquence matched only in the formulaic theater productions of the ancient world. There is a transparency of meaning in the appearance and actions of pro wrestlers.[1] The displays are superficial and based on overarching (some might say universal) narrative tropes, such as good versus evil, beautiful versus ugly, clever versus dim-witted and so on. Its appeal has made pro wrestling a multinational phenomenon, with varying traditions practiced primarily in the United States, Japan and Mexico.

      Professional wrestling in Mexico is known as lucha libre, literally “freestyle wrestling.” One distinguishing characteristic of Mexican wrestling lies in the athletes’ ability to perform jaw-dropping acrobatic feats, unlike their lumbering American counterparts. The second and most visible distinction is Mexican wrestlers’ colorful, outlandish costumes—outfits often punctuated with a mask. The mask protects the wearer’s identity and adds a dramatic layer of mystery for the audience, especially American spectators that find the displays exotic and bizarre.

      It is in the appeal to the universal that Quesada’s exhibition is most cohesive. However, the most successful works in Enmascarados are those that access the broad appeal of wrestling in general, even as they consider more specific elements within the Mexican tradition. Artists Fidencio Durán and Enrique Martínez succeed in communicating the dialogue that occurs between the athletes in the ring and the fans in arenas around the world.

      Fidencio Durán’s Tornillo (2008) is an action-packed painting that renders the finale of a tag-team bout. The central figure is caught mid-flight, apparently executing an aerial corkscrew maneuver. There is a hyper-realistic quality to painting, particularly the extraordinary amount of detail present throughout. But the fact that Durán renders the foreground and the background in sharp focus presents a physiological impossibility that the viewer has difficulty negotiating, eroding the three-dimensional illusion. All of these factors contribute to a surprisingly static composition. Durán’s carefully constructed subversion of viewer expectation comes complete with a caption in the lower-right-hand corner that warns us, “Sometimes the good have to use tricks to beat the bad.”

      Tornillo is compellingly paired with Enrique Martínez’s Tag Team Death-Match (2008), another painting with a similar theme. Unlike Durán’s precise approach, Tag Team Death-Match features a frenetic technique appropriate for his cartoon-like figures. In this piece, two iconic Mexican wrestlers are clearly getting the best of two American superstars. Although Durán’s style is not especially remarkable, the significance lies in the overtly humorous and covertly tragic narrative the artist communicates. More often than not, Mexican legends who managed to cross over into American productions have been presented as strange foreigners or even masked villains to be quickly dispatched by all-American wrestlers. Tag Team Death-Match is a fantasy for Latino fans that followed wrestling on both sides of the border. 

      Many of the works in Enmascarados manage to capture some of the idiosyncrasies inherent in professional wrestling. However, the organization of the paintings was too random and did not take advantage of the overarching theme to create more dynamic juxtapositions for the viewer. Organizer Angel Quesada readily admits that the entirety of the project was done on a voluntary basis and over a very short period of time. Nevertheless, Quesada and his ambitious vision deserves recognition, manifested in a second opportunity to experience the spectacle.

      Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. by A. Lavers (New York, 1972), 15-25.

      Álvaro Ibarra is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin.

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