Check out Baltimore artist Ben McNutt's queer perspective on wrestling in issue 24 of 'MATTE' magazine, available now.
MATTE magazine is a photography journal I started in 2010 as a way to shed light on good work by emerging photographers. Each issue features the work of one artist, and I shoot a portrait of him or her for the issue's cover. As photo editor of VICE, I'm excited to share my discoveries with a wider audience.
Issue 24 of MATTE magazine features pictures by Baltimore-based artist Ben McNutt. A current student at MICA, McNutt has been mining imagery of wrestling for the past year, researching the topic by training himself in the gym, taking lessons from a wrestling tutor, following wrestlers and teams on social media, poring over historical images, and staging erotically tinged wrestling matches in the studio. All of this adds up to a visual questioning of how society has set standards for what is considered heteronormative throughout time. I sat down with Ben to ask how this project came to consume him.
VICE: The magazine made up of pictures that have to do with wrestling. When did you make the first picture like this?
Ben McNutt: I started my exploration on wrestling about two years ago when I saw a vintage picture of wrestlers. I wanted recreate a picture like the one I had found for purely aesthetic reasons. I just wanted to have two males in the studio wrestling, and as a photographer I have the power to make that happen. I never really expected it to become much more in-depth than just the pure physicality of it, and my pure attraction sexually to it. But the more I researched this type of imagery, the more confusing paradoxes I found. Really, one thing led to another, and I'm still discovering paths. There's so much to delve into in terms of sexuality, relationships with people, and these weird exceptions in society when you can be really close with other males in some situations, but it's not OK in others. It doesn't really make sense to me. At the same time it's really comforting to know that maybe this very heteronormative thing is accepted among people. That's really nice. There's a nice potential in that on it's own.
You just said a lot of very complicated things. To begin with, there's' a sexual element to the pictures. You're interested in this safe space where two males can have this experience that objectively might look kind of sexual. Do you think wrestlers consider wresting a sexually charged act?
No. I've asked two gay wrestlers about that, and I've asked straight wrestlers, too. At least with the gay wrestlers, it wasn't sexual during the actual competition. I mean, they weren't turned on by it' it was purely a sport. They're in to win, or in to be the best. But it goes outside the actual act of wrestling. There's working out together, or having to lose or gain weight together.
Are there a lot of gay wrestlers?
Hard to say. There are a couple I go to art school with, at MICA. But otherwise, I follow a lot of wrestlers on Instagram, and at times it becomes very confusing how it couldn't be really sexually intimate. About a year ago, I started a journey of physically trying to look like a wrestler—going to the gym all the time and trying to gain weight and lose weight.
But you don't wrestle?
No, but I wanted to get into the mindset of what it is to be able to know your body, and control your body like that. It really opened up my eyes. It's really intense having to go to the gym every day, and do things that you sometimes don't want to do because it's something you love. With wrestlers, they do these very physical things together, they prepare for matches together, and there's something very intimate about that I feel like I'm starting to understand.
You are breaking the images you appropriate of men wrestling from the Internet. In the context of your work, they have to be read as gay. How do you feel about queerifying these people?
I don't even think about it because that's just how I view it. There is literally no other way for me to see these images. I think that's part of how this all began, because to me there's no way to view wrestling as something not queer, just because of who I am as a person.
"My next idea was to invite him to the gymnasium with me. We to excersise together, and I was sure that this might lead to something. He took exercies and wrestled with me many times when no one else was present. What can I tell you? It got me nowhere." —Plato (Symposium 217C)
One thing I like about this project is that to say "wrestling is gay" out loud is not that interesting or new. You're able to communicate things in a much more nuanced and complex way in pictures than anyone could in words. Part of that has to do with including historical or classical references.
I mean how confusing is it? Culturally we have these very specific signifiers of what is gay and what is not gay, and then you're presented with this classical Greek statue of two guys on top of each other. I mean what are you supposed to think about that?
The statue I photograph is a plaster cast in the atrium at MICA, but you can go to the Metropolitan Museum and see the same thing. People pass by it all the time and don't give it a second thought. Maybe we don't think they're culturally relevant because of how old they are, or because they're in a museum. But I see these images of wrestlers and wonder how I'm not supposed to find it homoerotic. Society dictates that you're supposed to think, "it can't be gay" because it's in a specific context, like a museum athletics. But that doesn't make sense at all.
It's something that's happened from Greek and Roman times, into the 1900's and now. It's this weird paradox of something undeniably erotic, but we're used to this assumption that they can't or shouldn't be viewed as that. And that's really confusing.
You've been photographing around this topic, but you've also been collecting images and making drawings. It's a multidimensional investigation of wrestling. How has your perspective on the sport changed since you began this work?
Initially I just found it hot. But I didn't feel comfortable taking this on as a subject as a long-term project unless I knew more about it. So I had a wrestling tutor teach me some moves, and I've done a lot of research. In some ways I'm not part of the community, but in some ways I am, in terms of how committed I am to following it.
Sexuality hasn't always been considered fluid over the course history. I find wrestling to be a very specific way to open up that conversation. I don't know how many people actually consider the fact that our views on sexuality haven't been the same throughout time. I think that's an important to thing to know on a basic level—to know that perceptions of sexuality are always changing.