On the -isms of Punkrockbigmouth I: Digital Impressionism

I cannot believe it’s been a year and a half since I wrote my first essay about the wrestling artist known as Punkrockbigmouth (and also known as Niki). I had plans for a three essay series, and then 2016 happened and I’m just now gathering my crumbled thoughts back up off the floor. As I work to find my groove in The New Era of Wrestling Theory and Criticism In Which WWE Takes a Backseat (see reasons here), I’m find it the perfect time to return to an artist I was nowhere near finished talking about. Oh sure, there’s a lot of WWE subject matter in here, but I’m not going to not write about an artist I so admire just because it requires that I reference WWE. I’m just not writing about WWE itself right now, note the difference. Anyway, this is the first installment of what is now a five part series, and I’m TOTALLY gonna write them all and get them all posted in a timely manner. I swear. I got this. You’ll see.

Ferris Bueller once said, “A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.” But who are we kidding here? I fucking love -isms. Ferris Bueller understood them to be ideas that trap you in a conceptual box, schools of thought that keep you from seeing the bigger picture. But -isms don’t necessarily have to constrain an artist like this, they can in fact be the words that describe exactly what it is that’s so interesting about her art. And I couldn’t pin Niki’s varied artwork down with a single -ism, so I developed a spectrum of fun new and pre-owned -isms to describe some of the varied conceptual trends I see threading through her archive.

Impressionism of yore was full of visible brushstrokes and more blunt, unblended swaths of paint, and yet somehow these artist could depict very authentic faces and figures this way by allowing for light and color to have a stark relationship. Essentially, impressionists liked to light their subjects brightly to create just a quick impression, not a thorough treatment of the scene. Take Manet’s Bar at the Follies-Bergère (image credit: WikiArt.org):

The light is everywhere, in the chandeliers and globes in the back, and yet somehow right in front as well to light up the barmaid’s face. Is that a mirror behind her, reflecting back the light that’s on her? Look closely, and don’t be so sure you can tell.

Niki’s digital impressionism doesn’t require such a capricious approach to light because a) the digital medium really demands more precision than that, and b) the light source in wrestling is known and consistent, and those ring lights are always bright enough to blanche out the subtle contours of anybody’s face.

This portrait of Luke Harper from December 2014 (entitled Harper Perplexed) comes from Niki’s early studies in digital impressionism:

So often Niki’s true subject is perhaps a wrestler’s most valuable asset: the melodramatic facial expression, which allows them to be understood by the folks way up in the cheap seats. With Harper Perplexed, she has captured just a moment of Harper’s iconic look of shock, or awe, or perhaps religious revelation (I’ve always thought Luke Harper takes a bump as though he’s seeing the face of God). Whatever the case, the ring lights are as profound as a beam of light from the heavens, highlighting the prominent digital brushstrokes. This is most definitely a quick glimpse, not a character study: scant are lines in Harper’s face, and other than his nose, the only real contours are set off by the light grey shadows cast over them by the all-important ring lights. His hair and beard are a nest of squiggly brushstrokes, including a few white ones as bright as Harper’s skin. We get just a rumple of his jacket in an unobtrusive color and some light scratchings of chest hair, hints to clarify the nature of the socio-political worldview embedded in his perplexity.

The Punkrockbigmouth archive has a whole early period of these more precious impressionist pieces: she has explored the wrestlers of The Shield in numerous portraits, there’s a Nicki Bella and an AJ Lee, a delightful Enzo and a bitchy and vain elder Jericho. More recently though, Niki has plunged into a far more modern brand of impressionism which is on such beautiful display in a couple of Shinsuke Nakamura pieces, in which the interplay of spotlight and costume are again godly, but in this case, it’s the wrestler himself who is the god:

What could be a more brief impression than the moment in which a wrestler passes in front of a spotlight? The colors in this picture entitled Studs are necessarily black and white, because that’s what is seen in this quick silhouetted moment, which is a spectacular, almost cosmic vision of Shinsuke’s divinity. The studs and lines on the front of Nakamura’s jacket seem to be reflecting a light from the front, though this is technically illogical in a silhouette, so just like in the Bar at the Follies-Bergère, we’re unable to pin down this apparent secondary source of light in front of the silhouette (though maybe the studs are just super shiny). But is the white digital mottling of the backlighting that allows the image to exist at all, separating the man from the darkness of his venue. It is called Studs because the studs are really the subject of the piece; if not for that blinding spotlight, Nakamura would be one with his surroundings (which, in terms of wrestling’s symbiotic exchange of energies between audience and performer, he most certainly is).

In this second digital impressionist take on Nakamura called Royal Blue & Cherry Red, the spotlight hits from the front and to Shinsuke’s right, and it casts a dramatic, hulking shadow off to his left, which we can understand as a projection of the pitch darkness we see cloaking his back and merging with his shock of hair. The shadow exists in the composition almost as a separate character, and its as though Nakamura’s hand is pressing it back, keeping it at bay, because, let’s face it: wrestlers have such dark demons lurking in their shadows. Not Shinsuke, though: I can’t speak for what’s inside his mind and heart, but his gimmick and essence make us feel like he is joyful and pure, like he has transcended the ego and existential depths into which so many other lives of necessary pain and delusion inevitably sink. Nakamura is the god of showmanship and striking a pose, and like Studs, this is another moment in which we feel this godliness.

The contrast between light and dark is indeed profound in this piece, as is the contrast of red and blue with each other, and with the black and white: Nakamura’s skin is as light as the opposing shadow is dark, and the shiny cherry red of his coat and the rich royal blue background feel like a perfect balance struck from opposite ends the color spectrum. In addition to this very impressionist interplay of light, dark, and color in what is ostensibly a depiction of a wrestler’s entrance, Shinsuke’s figure is in the most improbable of poses, a bow so impossibly deep, the uninitiated might think this picture something modernist or distorted. But it is neither: despite a wildly foreshortened torso and limbs at highly unusual angles, this is a realistic representation of Nakamura in the moment of some of his most dramatic posing, a moment which is his natural environment. You have to look closely at this piece to see the digital brushstrokes but they’re there: I see them in the restrained scribbles of white that reflect off Nakamura’s shiny red jacket and pants in the spotlight, and in the creases of this outfit where the black shadows creep around from his back. Niki’s capture of Shinsuke’s godlike presence in such bold impressionist choices recreates a small piece of the intense sensory thrill we feel in the presence of his iconic entrance, a energetic exchange with the audience of a magnitude few wrestlers achieve.

The expression of perplexed Luke Harper and these perfect moments of Nakamura’s godliness are just a few fine specimens of the impressions that form the vast tapestry of professional wrestling’s spectacle, impressions Niki is a master of capturing. Her body of digital work demonstrates how much wrestling itself is an impressionist form of theater: so often it is the brief and excess moments, poses, flourishes, and expressions that form our strongest wrestling memories.

Things get a little more funky with the next Punkrockbigmouth -ism, which is Crosshatch Realism. Stay tuned to consider what it is about this piece, for example:

And in the meantime please go check out the Punkrockbigmouth Tumblr, Absurdity!

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