“Hard Boys + Bad Girls” isn’t nearly as kinky as it sounds, though it’s not entirely without eroticism. The title belongs to both the show and Thomas McGovern’s new book, an exploration of a youth-dominant professional wrestling culture seen through the prism of the School of Hard Knocks in San Bernardino, the city the artist also calls home. Female wrestlers range from the fetish/bondage-clad Desire, to Sweet Candy, in a jumpsuit and pigtails, to Sexy Starrlit, who’s somewhere in between, vacillating from tough to come-hither to slightly cherubic, depending on the moment. In a marginalized sport, these young women account for the marginalized gender, and their presence is perhaps the series’ greatest revelation. They evoke a hint of roller derby, but then again something quite apart. Female pro wrestlers’ exposure has been so limited over the years that even though they’re still in the minority here, they breathe a disproportionate amount of life into the sub-cultural whole.
McGovern stumbled upon the School of Hard Knocks on a bike ride and was immediately invited into the subculture’s confines, to the extent that he became somewhat of a collaborator: many of his subjects have relied on his photographs to evaluate and in turn make alterations to their evolving personas. The collection of portraits and action shots ultimately add up to neither the ridiculous nor the sublime, but instead an elegy to muted blue-collar dreams, dreams that are heroic in scope but modest in execution.
We are inclined neither to laugh at these would-be superheroes, nor to be concerned for their well-being; they both writhe in pain and call out for attention simultaneously (though there are exceptions: in a shot of one woman being pinned by another in an outdoor ring, the victim [pinned woman] can’t quite suppress a grin, as she appears to be half-heartedly reaching her hand out for help). The theater of the School of Hard Knocks, as seen via McGovern’s lens, is devoid of the over-the-top caricatures one tends to associate with Vince McMahon’s WWE; even as their costumes are at times garish, their surroundings are decidedly less so, instantly bringing them back down to earth. Several of the portraits feature the wrestlers posing amidst their drab urban surroundings, consistently reminding us that we – and they – are a long way from the Staples Center.
The most intriguing scenes are also the most fleeting: the subculture’s fans. A large photo (36” x 48”), “Steve Masters, Master of Pain, and his #1 Fan,” features a homely woman in a white sleeveless top reaching out in rock star-like worship towards Masters who, glaring towards something off-camera – as if in a break from the action or possibly about to enter the ring – appears to be only a couple of feet away from his fan, and yet looms like a giant. In the background, a young girl looks on in glazed wonder; a young man with a hand-held video camera films from the corner of the frame just behind the #1 Fan; and another young man, a beefy youngster with what appears to be a still camera, crouches in some kind of deference behind Masters. The frame captures passionate fan-hood, but on a blue-collar scale, where the stars, though much nearer, are still just out of reach.
Another standout, an “Untitled” (2002), features no wrestlers but possibly wrestlers-to-be: four youngsters of about six or seven, three boys and a girl, who all seem rather non-committal in their approaches to wearing the authentic wrestling masks that have somehow come before them. A relatively immense teenager in below-knee-length jean shorts and a black t-shirt flanks them to the left, looking on with a complex smile that evokes pride, pleasure and perhaps just a touch of his own insecurity.
This is the cultural legacy the kids have been bequeathed, for now, and they seem to begrudgingly embrace it for a lack of any alternatives. The Inland Empire they were born into, and how their own take on the pro-wrestling subculture evolves over time, goes to the heart of “Hard Boys:” however much the sport manages to hold their interest, any fantasies they may entertain about becoming wrestling heroes will be noticeably tempered by the need to keep one foot in reality – a day job to go along with that masked hood and tights.
Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2010