Investigations of Gender and Identity in Chuck Ramirez’s Wrestler Series
Chuck Ramirez’s Wrestler series, depicting hyper-masculine toy wrestlers staged in various positions and groupings, was first displayed at the Arlington Museum of Art, in Arlington, Texas, in 1998. The full set of Wrestlers was shown again in 2001, at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ramirez, an artist whose knowledge of graphic design strongly informed his work, made his wrestlers digitally, creating composite images of photographs of real men combined with those of toy wrestlers. The result is strangely realistic figures, their bodies wrapped from shoulder to calf in thick, ropy muscles, plastic six packs gleaming and on full display. Ramirez digitally manipulated the figures even further in order to produce mirror images of some of the wrestlers, pressed against one another as if kissing.
The prints, evenly hung in four rows, took up one wall, and were accompanied by a small television playing an animation of the wrestlers, slowly and methodically performing a bodybuilding routine. This body of work was part of Boys’ Toys’, an exhibition that gathered work from several different artists, all of which dealt with or made use of children’s toys. The show book-ended a season that began with Women’s Work, an exhibition that examined household objects and tasks and the way they are often classified as feminine or falling under the female domain. Seen as working in dialogue with Women’s Work, Boys’ Toys’, and by extension Ramirez’s series of wrestlers, can be read as a critique of the way in which we assign gender roles through the use of certain objects. Action figures and toys such as the ones Ramirez photographs in his Wrestler series are oftentimes seen as a symbol of manhood, heavily muscled to signify their strong, secure masculinity. Ramirez seems to point out with his wrestlers that these definitions of masculinity are too narrow, too constricting. His wrestlers are masculine to the point of caricature. Their digital manipulations further point out the constructed nature of masculinity, the futility, even fragility, of assigning a strict gender identity to people from an early age.
Ramirez, an artist residing in San Antonio before his untimely death in 2010, was also openly gay, and HIV positive. This facet of his identity, explored heavily in his other work, can also be used as a framework through which to view his series of wrestlers. The wrestlers, coupled together and oftentimes posed as if kissing or embracing, challenge the conventions of sexual orientation, investigating sexual identity. Ramirez’s Wrestler series is complex, asking several different questions in an attempt to challenge tradition regarding gender. Using an object of popular culture, a children’s toy, Ramirez is able to push back against the restrictions of traditional gender roles, challenging the confines of gender and masculinity, and questioning the idea of sexual orientation as something clear-cut or able to be neatly categorized.
Written by 2017 Summer intern, Mary Martha Meyer Hill