The Cerebral Art of Wrestling

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The Cerebral Art of Wrestling

LOS ANGELES — For his first solo exhibition at Various Small Fires, Mark Yang displays a preternatural confidence with both his medium and subject matter. The show features five large-scale paintings of pared-down figures contorted into dizzying configurations.

Yang, who received his MFA at Columbia last year, cites his experience as a wrestler in high school and concepts of masculinity in his Korean upbringing in the United States as personal influences for the works. To some degree his compositions reflect images of intertwined wrestlers by Thomas Eakins, Eadweard Muybridge, and others. 

Yet Yang diverges from their fascination with the athletic male body, and the sport’s tension between aggression and intimacy, to focus on the body as a formal element of the composition. Yang’s nude figures are tubular and pliable, at times evoking those in Matisse’s cut-outs, and, with the exception of “Serpent’s Flame” (2021), their sex is ambiguous and the palpable eroticism of Eakins or Muybridge is sublimated into sensual lines and contours. 

Mark Yang, “Arctic” (2021), oil on canvas, 62 1/2 x 77 1/2 x 2 inches

Yang’s palette ranges from soft to bold, but in all the works his velvety surfaces seem to capture light. A golden-yellow sun in “Serpent’s Flame,” perched on the horizon line of a royal blue sea and deep red sky, radiates warmth across the canvas. Two rubbery legs, which take up most of the painting’s right side, twist around each other in an undulating rhythm.

A luminous yellow similar to the one used for the sun in “Serpent’s Flame” fills almost the entire background of “Split Contour” (2021). In this and other works, the figures are divided into dark and light planes, to dramatic effect. Here, three stylized figures emerge from a central point. Their heads, limbs, and torsos reach out in all directions, transforming their precarious balancing act into a swirl of black and white.

“Sand Bond” (2021) comes closest to narrative. The work depicts two figures on a beach, their backs curved toward the painting’s left and right edges, their outstretched arms converging near the center. Two glimpsed legs suggest a third figure in the mix. The foreground figures loosely mirror each other in their arched backs and downturned heads, as well as a visible nipple on each, rendered as lavender and yellow concentric circles. (Yang repeatedly uses nipples and feet to articulate the anatomy of his abstracted figures.) In composition and atmosphere it calls to mind Picasso’s Surrealist bathers.

Mark Yang, “Sand Bond” (2021), oil on canvas, 52 x 64 inches

With fluid outlines creating a sense of constant motion, Yang imbues the painting with a dreamlike quality by suspending the left-hand figure in midair. The sun-bleached palette conjures both the joy and melancholy of the ephemeral.

In contrast to the intimacy of “Sand Bond,” “Suspension” (2021) presents wrestling as a spectacle of abstraction and figuration in tension. Two sets of legs emerge from what looks like a single inverted figure. One leg thrusts upward from two torsos (denoted by two sets of olive green nipples), touching the top edge at the knee, then bending as its foot hits the left side of the canvas. Another leg pushes against the right side. Two more legs crisscross on the left while, on the right, a head in the form of a monochrome oval joins the four nipples to pull the viewer’s gaze in different directions. 

Yang divides the bodies into zones of brown and chalky white against a rich, jewel-like purple backdrop. A semicircle at the bottom and a vertical line on each side of the canvas delimit a kind of stage that alludes to wrestling rings, theatrical stages, or Francis Bacon’s linear partitions. 

Mark Yang, “Suspension” (2021), oil on canvas 72 1/8 x 54 1/8 x 2 inches

Bacon’s brute spectacles of entangled flesh point to a visceral intensity that is absent from Yang’s stylized wrestlers, or lovers. The paintings’ precision can veer toward a cool detachment that privileges the cerebral over the corporeal and holds any connection at bay. The figures — even those crowded together, performing — can seem remote, enclosed in a world that excludes anyone outside the pictorial space. The absence of any visible faces in the works heightens the sense of intruding on a strange, silent world. 

Yet, Yang’s deft grasp of spatial and color relations results in taut compositions that layer frozen gestures and visual movement along sinuous lines and from one focal point to another. The odd nipples that appear in many of the works double as eyes, covertly returning the onlooker’s gaze. Wrestling is less a physical act than a psychological space that provides ample material for the artist, still early in his career, to mine.

Mark Yang continues at Various Small Fires (812 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, California) through October 23.

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