Lately I’ve been interested in examining the areas in which wrestling and the creative arts overlap, intersect, inform and inspire each other. In this realm there is no better artist to write about than Rob Schamberger. Schamberger is a Kansas City pop artist who works with a variety of mediums and techniques to create stunning and vibrant portraits that capture all that is larger than life about wrestling’s superstars, past and present. Schamberger paints legends, but he himself is legendary. His stuff is for sale on WWE.com, wrestlers and the WWE corporate headquarters hang his work on their walls, he has had showings at Summer Slam and Wrestlemania. He is prolific and hugely talented, and he knows how to capture all the aspects of a wrestling icon – the character, the face, the physicality, the gimmick, the whole mythology — in an often completely original take on a character we think we know so well.
This post is the first in a series of essays on some of Schamberger’s most intriguing wrestling portraits, a fresh take on the iconic underdog Daniel Bryan (which can be found in Schamberger’s vast gallery on his website).
(artwork courtesy of Rob Schamberger)
“But I say that art is greatest when it conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.” – John Ruskin
This ink and watercolor portrait of Daniel Bryan is surreal in its strangeness if you stop to consider the details of its composition. Most of Schamberger’s paintings view his wrestlers from a more traditional portraiture perspective: mostly the head, sometimes also the torso. Yet here Schamberger comes at wrestling’s “Yes!” man from a distant ringside angle that embodies and expands upon Roland Barthes’ idea of wrestling as existing in a “light without shadow,” which in turn generates “emotion without reserve.” Schamberger captures WWE’s everyman underdog in a truly unique light and space, evoking some of wrestling’s weighty themes – the hero story, the symbiotic exchange of energies, and the fleeting nature of the moment, all in a spooky noirish chiaroscuro (in other words, a meaningful and stylized contrast of light and dark).
This painting is made even more unusual by the narrow, vapor-like updraft shape that frames its subject Daniel Bryan as he standing on the ropes in his iconic “Yes!” posture. The updraft shape evokes notions of a smoke wisp coming off a candle, or perhaps the beginning and end of a dream indicated by the convention of wavy lines across the TV screen in a 1980’s sitcom. Schamberger is indeed utilizing a pop art convention here, in which a scene is captured inside a silhouette against a white or otherwise empty background. Google for images of “movie poster silhouette” and you can see scores of examples where the entirety of the poster’s imagery is condensed inside the silhouette of an iconic character – this Boba Fett and this Godzilla are a couple of my favorite examples. But unlike most movie posters that utilize this convention, Shamberger’s updraft shape doesn’t immediately settle in a specific meaning because it isn’t obvious what it’s supposed to be. It is not the icon itself; it contains the icon. This composition resists an obvious interpretation and demands we look closer at the painting within the updraft to understand the complexity of Schamberger’s image.
Every inch of the ring in this painting is awash in a bright white Barthesian light without shadow, including the would-be black and red ring posts, ropes, and turnbuckles. Daniel Bryan himself is whitened with the light in his ephemeral “Yes!” moment. The floor-level audience, painted not as individual spectators but an abstract mass of humanity, is also in large part lightened and whitened by wrestling’s metaphoric light. But look above their heads: as the stadium seating ascends, this mass of people transforms abruptly into a turbulent cloud of dark watercolor blotches, browns and blacks that swirl into a troubled crowd of ghost-like faces if you let your imagination take over while you look at them. Above the mezzanine level where sections of balcony seating should be, a smoky background of black watercolors ascends instead like vapors moving infinitely upward and off the paper, no ceiling where a ceiling should realistically be. Don’t miss the monster-like eyes and faces in that smoky background as well.
Meaning begins to emerge out of all this surreal strangeness when you consider the origin points of these various elements of the painting. Those spooky ghosts in the mezzanine hover above the heads of the brightly-lit audience, and much of the smoky black stuff appears to originate directly above Daniel Bryan’s head. If we allow this painting to be about the animal spirits of a wrestling match like this, the crowd’s most raw emotional reactions to Bryan manifest themselves in that brown and black stuff up in the mezzanine, and those are some heavy tempestuous demons folks are releasing with their wrestling habit, right? Daniel Bryan, in his classic wrestling moment on the ring ropes, is feeding off of the energy coming off of his fans as they react to him, and it’s all swirling up into the sky like a dream. The next image in my stream of thought is wolves howling at the moon.
But what are we to make of the ringside point of view that frames the scene? Whose perspective is it we are seeing this world from? Jerry Lawler? The artist? The guy who dings the ring bell? Werner Herzog, maybe? It’s certainly somebody, not an inanimate camera, because here’s where it all fits together: whoever it is watching the scene at ringside is participating in the exchange of energies. This is, finally, the source of the updraft vapor: it illustrates the personal, emotional experience of a wrestling watcher as it frames a crowd of likeminded souls feeling the sublime in a ring-rope pose. Schamberger’s skillful watercolor brushstrokes create random images in the wild sea of the audience and the dark, spooky sky juxtaposes the exacting lines of the white ring and the updraft frame, allowing the painting a contrast of sharp and vague to augment the light/dark chiaroscuro, all of which amounts to a beautiful visual manifestation of wrestling’s emotional intensity.
As wrestling’s premier everyman underdog, Daniel Bryan is the perfect subject to illustrate this phenomenon with his crowd-rousing “Yes!” arms. But this painting could feature a number of wrestlers who have mastered the moment of the ring-rope pose – The Rock and Steve Austin are obvious examples, but numerous wrestlers have exquisite ring-rope poses. Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton are a couple of my personal favorites, and this Schamberger painting featuring Edge highlights his ring-rope moment as worthy of mention. Schamberger’s Daniel Bryan painting is not so much about the wrestler but about why we watch wrestling. It allows us a certain intimacy with an heroic figure, whose only fragility is that he requires our noisy, energetic display of admiration to succeed (or in wrestling parlance, to “get over”). Unlike reading a novel or watching a film about the hero’s quest, we watch wrestling to play very real, very gratifying roles in the stories our heroes tell.