Joseph Peragine’s exhibition Grappling Mandalas, on view at Marcia Wood Gallery through April 6, features a new body of work tackling the subject of wrestling. The work flirts with themes of homoeroticism and sexual BDSM culture as well as, more obliquely, Tibetan mandalas. The artworks on view comprise splashy watercolors, several large oil paintings, a video, and two black latex animals suspended on chains, all connected by high school wrestling motifs. This combination comes across as schizophrenic, and works against deeper engagement with the headier themes in this exhibition.
The black latex creatures, a bunny hanging from its hind leg and quadruple amputee wolf, dangle like punching bags from corners of the gallery. These creatures, with tight, molded faces, make obvious references to sexual bondage and BDSM culture. These sculptures jar against Peragrine’s watercolors, which add an oddly neutral note to the exhibition. Installed in multiple forms— an uneven grid, and again as an animated slideshow titled Mat Movie—are 56 small watercolors of wrestling mats, their concentric rings the most obvious mandala reference in this exhibition. These sketches are mediocre on paper, soothing on film, and altogether disruptive to the overriding hints of sexuality in the rest of the exhibition.
The most provocative works are Peragine’s oil paintings. Peragine, a former high school wrestling star, photographs his sons’ wrestling meets and, using Photoshop, creates Rorschach-esque scenes in which the faces and bodies of the young men are abstracted, often allowing sexual imagery to appear. The strongest of these is Grappling Mandala: Red Spadle, 2013, a fire-toned painting in which the action and actors are almost completely indecipherable. In this painting, the wrestling boys become a tantric tangle of limbs with faces cropped and melded to form vulva and penis-like forms. Two male forms come together to create a single spider-like hermaphrodite, making a daring and provocative gesture of gender-melding within a mesmerizing painting.
Yet this graceful resolution of two forms into one is unique to Red Spadle. In the other paintings, though there are feminine forms like the female torso that appears in Grappling Mandala: Funk Roll, 2013, the two bodies remain separable. This distinction prevents many of the works from transcending mere pictorial trick, leaving them more quirky illustration than an enlightening exploration of concept.
Indeed, the mandala concept seems a stretch in the Grappling Mandala series. The works appear as if fractured by a kaleidoscope, rather than circular meditations on completeness. As fractured bodies they are intriguing, but Peragine’s illustrative style of painting impairs the realism necessary to take these images from stylized to truly shocking. The bodies are bulky and—with exception of Red Spadle—overly rounded, making the young men seem like pliable rubber more than sinewy, muscular flesh.
In many ways, the works in Grappling Mandalas seem a distant, but not unrelated, cry from Robert Mapplethorpe’s glorious black and white photographs featuring gay men, white and black, in a variety of homoerotic poses. (The most explicit of these photographs are not available online. A sample, however, is visible here). In many of these images, bodies are contorted into abstract humanoid forms and S&M props are shown mid-penetration. Mapplethorpe’s images are violent and shocking, but simultaneously and impossibly beautiful.
Formal beauty and hard-edged grit are missing from the Grappling Mandala paintings. Peragine reaches for a dazzling kaleidoscope of male forms and, in some cases, blurs race and gender; unfortunately, the works fall short, remaining fixed in the stylized and illustrative.