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Finding Empowerment in Female Professional Wrestlers

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Kelly Inouye, 'Battle Royale,' 2019. (Courtesy the artist and Marrow Gallery)

It wasn’t until Kelly Inouye saw Netflix’s GLOW, a fictionalized story about female professional wrestlers in 1980s Los Angeles, that she remembered watching Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the real-life show the streaming series draws from.

Revisiting old episodes, then expanding her source material to include a broader history of female wrestling, Inouye transformed select scenes into a series of large-scale watercolor on paper paintings for Against the Ropes, a solo show at the Inner Sunset’s Marrow Gallery. Inouye captures moments of impressive athleticism, performances of rage, outrageous costumes and glittery melodrama.

Kelly Inouye, 'Good and Mad,' 2019.
Kelly Inouye, ‘Good and Mad,’ 2019. (Courtesy the artist and Marrow Gallery)

While Inouye describes the original episodes of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling as “campy, pretty offensive and weird,” there was also something mesmerizing about them. “It made me wonder if what I was watching was exploitative or empowering,” she says.

Eventually, she landed on empowering, thanks to a stack of feminist texts she read while working on the show. Inouye plans to distribute a takeaway reading list of books by authors like bell hooks, Rebecca Traister and Audre Lorde at her exhibition.

Grappling with the history of feminist theory and the suppression of women’s anger, especially in a moment when there’s still plenty for women to be angry about, Inouye translated that mental work into a physical undertaking. The largest painting in Against the Ropes is 60 by 74 inches, a scale usually seen in hardier materials like oil on canvas, not watercolor on paper.


“Painting physically empowered women was super cathartic,” Inouye says.

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