Artist and faculty member (BFA Fine Arts, BFA Visual & Critical Studies departments) Steve DeFrank (MFA 1990 Fine Arts) is in the midst of a 10-month stay in Mexico City, on a research trip made possible by assistance from the Fulbright Program, the Lillian Orlowsky and William Freed Foundation and the Museo del Arte Popular, an institution dedicated to Mexican folk art. His goal? To immerse himself in the history and practice of lucha libre, Mexico’s enduringly popular pro-wrestling entertainment, best personified in the popular imagination by the iconic luchador—a looming, masked figure in tights.
As with its American counterpart, lucha libre mixes broad-stroke theatrics and narrative with athletic feats and choreographed (though not necessarily fake!) violence. For DeFrank, who first encountered the sport on an earlier trip to Mexico, it was love at first sight. He recently took time between matches to answer some questions via email about his trip thus far, and how his experiences might influence his art.
What was your first exposure to lucha libre?
My husband and I were in Mexico City five years ago and someone suggested we all go to a lucha libre combate. I had never been, and what I saw blew my mind. It’s part circus, part gymnastics—and such drama played out in a ring. I was told it was a battle of good and evil, a battle that can only be described as controlled chaos. It is a cathartic experience for the audience, who are an integral part of the show. There were dwarfs being tossed about and gay wrestlers, called exoticos, in pink sparkly singlets, men and women wearing amazing masks doing these amazing moves and the audience is screaming the most obscene things trying to make the person next to them laugh.
Aside from the entertainment value, what interests you about the sport?
I had an epiphany while watching lucha: This is what it is like to make art—or this is what it’s like in my head! I was trained as an academic painter and I have struggled with that for a long time. Every day, I ask myself why I paint. I saw these lucha libre matches and felt an energy that I wanted to capture. I needed to find out more.
I started reading some of Roland Barthes’ ideas of boxing as a spectacle, which suggested that the luchadores were using illusion, just as I do as a painter. The lucha audience knows that what they are seeing is a show and goes along for the ride, just as the art audience willingly suspends its disbelief. But like art, lucha is more complex than just being an illusion.
For example, after one match, I was eating dinner with the luchadores at the local priest’s home (who, by the way, is also a luchador!). One by one, the matches ended and the wrestlers joined us, and I was shocked to see that some of them were bloodied. I was told that the wrestlers cut their foreheads, so when they get hit, they bleed. So while the fights are “fake,” they’re also “real.”
How are you spending your time in Mexico?
I’m studying the intersection of lucha libre and painting. I believe that both use similar techniques: illusion, allegory, farce, and sexual, political and religious imagery. There are many parallels between the two—the canvas, the narrative, etc.
I had this idea, strange as it may sound, that lucha libre is a metaphor for painting, and I felt I had to see it through. It’s my job to connect these dots. Artists need to take risks and see where an idea can go, good bad or ugly. I tell my students all the time that they cannot play it safe.
How is the Museo del Arte Popular involved?
El Museo del Arte Popular is dedicated to works made by craftsmen from every part of Mexico. It’s truly an amazing place, and with the support of the director, Walther Boelsterly, I am allowed access, inside and out. I am looking for images of good and evil in the museum’s collection—narratives that parallel the good-versus-evil struggles in lucha libre.
I’m also working with Israel, a.k.a. Starman—a luchador by night and an assistant to the director by day. He is my guide to all things lucha libre and has helped me meet some of the coolest wrestlers.
Did you know beforehand that the museum employed a part-time luchador?
No. When I first approached Walther about my project, he wasn’t sure the museum was the right place for me. But after many exchanges, he told me about Israel, and said that he could possibly help. I was thrilled beyond belief and it has been a match made in heaven.
Will you be creating any lucha-themed works?
Yes and no. I look at the masks and outfits that some of these wrestlers wear and drool over the colors and designs, and I want to use that as an influence. I’m also intrigued by their incredible bodies—from super muscular to super fat. (There is a battle going on in lucha libre. The traditional luchador was barrel-chested and thick, but now some of the men are sculpted Adonises, which is considered very American.)
But what I am really interested in is: How do the wrestlers use imagery of good and evil? How do they use illusion? How do they tell stories?
So while I’m not going to do academic portraits, I plan on using the symbols and the sensibilities that I see. How I will incorporate them into my works, only the “Art Gods” really know. But I am beginning to work with local craftsmen would like to integrate traditional crafts into my work.
Where and when will these works be shown?
Walther has generously offered to show some of my work in a show at the museum next year that will be dedicated to artists who work with artesanos. I will also be having a show at the Provincetown Art Museum next fall, composed entirely of work from my time here in Mexico. I’m also looking into funding from Fulbright and the U.S. Embassy to participate in an upcoming art fair.
Has the lucha libre community been receptive to your project?
They have welcomed me wholeheartedly, which includes a lot of teasing. The luchadores are really happy to have someone truly interested in knowing what their world is all about.
Most of the wrestlers that I have met have outside jobs as taxi drivers, waiters, assistants. . . . Wrestling is their passion. They will perform in one town and then pack everything up and pile into a taxi and drive to the next town and set up the fight again. They may play in the big arenas, but they mostly go from small town to small town. For one match, they put my name on the promotional poster. Afterward, I was called into the ring and asked to say a few words. While I botched the Spanish, everyone from the luchadores to the audience cheered. Then the entire community ate together, and for a brief moment I was a celebrity and had my picture taken with everyone from the sweetest abuelita (grandma) to the meanest looking luchador, who was in fact sweet as a pussycat!
Are you also interested in U.S. professional wrestling?
Not really. I know there is a link between the two—a Texan promoter introduced pro wrestling in Mexico in the 1930s. But like so many cultural imports, Mexico has truly made this their own.
How’s your Spanish?
Ugh! Ask any of my students and they will tell you I am a man obsessed with learning Spanish. Learning Spanish in New York is so different from living in a Spanish-speaking country. I’ve been studying for five years and have a good base. No one at the museum speaks English, aside from the director, who told me straight out that he wouldn’t speak it with me. I struggle every day but I can communicate and get my ideas across. Everyone I’ve met has been so kind and patient with my Spanish. And, through lucha, I am learning some of the best swear words ever!
You mentioned that matches often take place in small or unofficial venues. What sort of media coverage does lucha libre get? Is it sort of under the radar?
In Mexico City, it is on TV every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday and it is reported in all the local papers, just as baseball is at home.
In the States, too, there seems to be something in the zeitgeist right now when it comes to lucha libre. It’s been getting a lot of coverage, from ESPN to Details. Even NPR has done stories on it. Lucha libre is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, but one would think that the U.S. just found out about it. So I think my timing is good!
Image: Courtesy of Steve DeFrank.