Shaun El C. Leonardo '01 brings Bowdoin Football to the LA County Museum of Art

Story posted October 08, 2008

Shaun El C. Leonardo '01 is among five artists in an exhibition titled Hard Targets — Masculinity and American Sports at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Hard Targets examines the images and accoutrements of contemporary American sport in an effort to challenge the widespread view of masculinity in the sporting world as illustrated by the media.

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Shaun El C. Leonardo '01 amid his installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Leonardo has been addressing those issues in his art ever since he was a member of the football team while majoring in visual arts at the College.

Leonardo's installation includes a performance piece that requires that he (and 10 semi-pro players from the West Coast) suit up in football gear.

Leonardo designed his uniform — and those of his 10 "opponents" — based on Bowdoin's football uniform and was on campus back in July to borrow equipment from football coach Dave Caputi.

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Leonardo and company offer an artistic interpretation of "Bull in the Ring," a phrase used to describe a specific training routine banned from American football on the high school and collegiate levels.

In its original form, the team would form a revolving circle, as one player, the matador, would be chosen to enter the center of the ring.

The coach would the randomly choose players to play the part of the bull and charge at the player in the center, possibly catching him off-guard, to deliver a blow.

The object of this practice was for the center player to develop alertness by "keeping his head on a swivel" and to defend himself from all oncoming offenders.

"In my experience as a player and coach, the Bull in the Ring drill was used as a tool to unify the team," says Leonardo.

"As a player defended himself from his own teammates he, in theory, would earn their respect. Hitting drills in American football are often utilized to bring the team together as players are forced to not only collectively exert a certain level of aggression and passion, but also suffer the same pain. In effect, Bull in the Ring actually functioned in the opposite way. Weak players were isolated. Those that survived exemplified their prowess and fearlessness. The player in the center who executed the routine most forcefully stood out as a leader — more powerful and deserving of praise.

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"Having practiced this vicious program since the age of 12 until the culmination of my football career in college, I have a very personal connection to the Bull in the Ring.

"In retrospect, I find that the routine is an incredible metaphor for how masculinity is projected out in the world. In the attempt to join the ranks of manhood, young men will 'prove' themselves by portraying a front of toughness. Throughout life weather it be athletics, military service, the job force, politics, popular culture, even fatherhood, men will seemingly sacrifice their individuality to fit within a certain mold of masculinity. The truth of the matter is, however, men feel the need to define themselves against weakness. We achieve true manhood not by becoming a 'team player' but by rising above the rest — exhibiting our superiority.

"My intention is to perform an aesthetically scripted yet actual Bull in the Ring with an undetermined outcome, within a gallery setting. I, as the center participant, will either affirm my virility or fail; in essence, demonstrating a very intense depiction of my experience with the vulnerabilities of projecting masculinity."

Leonardo's fixed installation mimics the configuration and aesthetic of the Bull in the Ring performance. Ten black football helmets suspended at eye-level are positioned in a circle facing inward toward one black helmet.

"The circle is not meant to be perfect," says Leonardo. "Instead, the helmets creating the ring will differ in height and proximity to the center helmet to convey the motion and energy that might be captured in a still photograph of the performance."

Each head is molded to perfectly match the helmet, giving the face and bottom of each "head" a smooth, detail-less, glossy surface.

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"As in the Bull in the Ring performance, the individual identity of the players are lost — purposely removed in order to emphasize the team's goal towards camaraderie," says Leonardo.

"All the while, the silence of their pose — the quiet before the storm — reflects the moment in which the center player, matador, is required to rise to the challenge - proving his prowess and courage in face of the oncoming onslaught."

Hard Targets — Masculinity and American Sports is on exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from October 9, 2008, to January 18, 2009.

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