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The Boxing Gym is a shot to the gut

Boxing exhibit reveals our fascination with sanctioned violence and masculinity

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Ali. Tyson. Mayweather. If you hold these names in reverence, the artists behind the latest exhibit at CPCC's Ross Gallery are out to disabuse you of some very dear notions. The Boxing Gym, a multi-media installation by de'Angelo Dia and Shaun El C. Leonardo, uses nine photographs and an accompanying video to deconstruct the myths of masculinity surrounding the brutal ballet. The work pushes viewers to reconsider the violence ascribed to black male bodies, as well as the effect of our collective bloodlust.

The two artists, who met at in 2010 at the McColl Center, where Dia was preparing to begin an artist's residency and Leonardo was finishing up his, have put together a show of bewildering power. In an abandoned boxing gym, Dia recorded footage of Leonardo, shadowboxing and channeling the spirits of past fighters. Parts of the video go black, and you are left with the sound of Leonardo's breath, harsh in the building's cold shell; the swish of his jabs connecting with nothingness; the rhythm of his footwork and the high whine of a passing train.

For Leonardo, it isn't just play acting. "I don't pretend. When I stepped into that performance space, I was a boxer. When I was shadowboxing, I had an opponent. It takes over your entire self."

He has built a body of work, self-portraits, based on immersing himself in the worlds of the athletes he portrays. In the New York native's first such works, he embodied a fictional Mexican wrestler named El Conquistador. He would wrestle an invisible person, informed by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. "At the time I was painting self-portraits of those godly mythic beings, to see where those machismo archetypes failed, and to fight those ideas within myself. It was my way of manifesting my own invisible battle ... with my understanding of masculine ideas."

Leonardo traveled to Oaxaca to train as a luchador, culminating two years later in a Mexico City match with former world champion Sangre Azteca. That experience "completely altered the way I understood my own work. From there on, I would actually try to become the subjects."

A graceful athlete, Leonardo was training as a boxer before his residency at the McColl, and so knee-deep in that world that he was under pressure to compete in the Golden Gloves. Maintaining the boundary between the journeys he makes for art and his own identity, predictably, can be "very difficult."

Dia's motivations were different, but just as personal. The slight artist, who also loves boxing but runs cross-country, has a scholarly air as he tells the story of a fight in junior high. He was slap-boxing with a friend when the other kid landed a particularly good hit, and his nose bled a little. A little later, emboldened, the same kid swung on him again. Dia broke a bottle over his head. He was conflicted by the praise of his peers and even parents — the same ones who taught him to stand up for kids being bullied and the voiceless.

The incident is "something I've taken throughout life with me," Dia says. Just friends, just playing, but seeing the chain reaction leading from an initial accidental hit to the final violence left a profound impact. Their actions, he says, were escalated by the participation of witnesses egging them on. He hopes to spark conversations about the kinds of energy we nurture and expect from boys.

Dia and Leonardo connected over their love of sports and a shared history of being high school and college athletes. They stumbled upon the gym — "we broke in," Leonardo says — when scouting out places to shoot.

"The boxing gods were smiling down on us. There was a speed bag, a body bag, playbills from old matches, and an old flag hanging from the ceiling," Dia recalls.

A little digging revealed the gym had been owned by Lou Kemp, a Greek immigrant whom the Carolina Boxing Hall of Fame website calls "the Godfather of amateur boxing on the Charlotte sports scene for nearly 50 years." A former pro bantamweight, Kemp produced many champions, including two Olympians and world pro-bantamweight champion Kelvin Seabrooks. His boxers won more than 1,000 amateur matches. But the ones who didn't go on to fame lost many more, and it is this spirit of loss, or missed potential, that seems to inhabit the space in the photos.

James "Bonecrusher" Smith, 61, is one such boxer to have passed through Kemp's gym. Between December 1986 and March 1987, Smith held the WBA heavyweight champion, the first to have earned a degree. But a series of losses, including one to Mike Tyson, sidelined his career. Dia and Leonardo reached out to him by phone when they were assembling the installation, to put the work into context.

Smith spoke with me about the other side of the spotlight, including the pitfalls of drugs and gold diggers, and says high-profile athletes are often deliberately targeted and then taken down by the media. "A lot of people get caught up in situations and they don't even know what's happening until it's too late," he said on the phone from Myrtle Beach.

It makes for a great rise-and-fall narrative, but while Brett Favre isn't primarily associated with adulterous sexting, black athletes seem less able to make a comeback from scandal. Dia thinks it's because of the ways racial stereotypes intersect with athletic tropes.

"Audiences want that brute. They want that ruthlessness, but then they turn around and punish black athletes for acting it out. Even when people try to make a change. We don't want to see the peaceful, pigeon-raising Mike Tyson. We want the killer," Dia says. He doesn't exempt himself from the rabble — "even doing the research got me hyped up," he jokes. "I wanted to go and punch a mofo out."

Athletes, too, fall victim to their own skewed image, and it gets harder to turn off the created persona, or as Leonardo illustrated, draw the line between it and themselves.

"The demise of the gym gives us a backdrop to talk to young men [about these issues]," Dia says. "I don't see much difference between a cage and a ring."

His favorite image of the show is the final one, of Leonardo sitting wearily in a chair as though contemplating a long-finished career. His portrayal is not so much a has-been as someone who never was. Has he reached his own standards, or has he allowed others to establish the standards for him?

"The energy of that final image energy doesn't say I'm proud of what I've done, or where I am. It's not just the rise and demise, but a question of how much of a rise there even was," Dia says.

The exhibit reception is Thursday Nov. 6, 5-7 p.m. at CPCC's Ross Gallery.

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