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Why Do the Costacos Brothers' Vintage '80s Sports Posters Look Like Retro Porn?

Big Game James Worthy
Big Game James Worthy
The Costacos Brothers

Do we still have the old jock and nerd stereotypes of yore? Swishy art nerds would never be caught on the jock side of the tracks, or vice versa, would they?

Well, with Country Club and the Mondrian's joint exhibition of the Costacos Brothers' fantastical sports lithographs from the 1980s, the jocks have invaded the art gallery.

Former Laker "Big Game James" Worthy stands Perry Mason-esque, suited up, ready to take on the courtroom; Dodger-era Kirk Gibson, decked out like a cross between "Crocodile" Dundee and Jesse Ventura, prepares to hunt pitchers like game animals; and Michael Jordan dunks the fucking moon, obviously.

For the nerdier thirty-something art folks like us, these are definitely the posters that stood watch over the kids who beat us up in middle school as they slept comfortably. But, now, nearly 30 years later, there's an undeniable sense of artistic wonderment in these seemingly unlikely objets d'art.

No caption necessary
No caption necessary
The Costacos Brothers

While the exhibition, curated by Adam Shopkorn, is called "For the Kids," there's nothing Sally Struthers or infomercially altruistic here. This is for kids of an inner kind. "We wanted to do this for the kids that these guys were," Shopkorn says about the posters' original target audience. "I basically want to bring new audiences into the gallery...and these are doing that."

The Costacos Brothers, John and Tock, were originally in the sports T-shirt business and broke into their local market in 1985 with Seattle Seahawk Kenny Easley posed as "The Enforcer" -- a magnification of his tough-guy reputation. On a national level, they shot Chicago Bear and Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon in a Mad Max get-up titled "Mad Mac," and soon after they were selling like framable wall-hanging hotcakes ... by the tens of thousands. All told, the Brothers made about 1,000 different posters over 10 years that sold well into the millions of copies. What is it that draws us to these pieces now?

Crocodile Kirk Gibson
Crocodile Kirk Gibson
The Costacos Brothers

More importantly, what is James Worthy going to do to that female colleague in that first photo? Clearly something NOT specifically for "the kids" or their sensitive eyes. There obviously is something evocative of some retro porn, reminding us that the same kids who had Magic and Gretzky on one wall probably had Kathy Ireland on the other.

Perhaps the posters' appeal comes from the way they evoke pure '80s kid fantasy -- not just sexual, but also the onscreen, boundaryless, forced suspension of disbelief that asked us to take a homebound, cat-eating alien or a talking, flying supercar driven by a nonexistant drifter at face value. Dudes blew shit up. Dudes got the chicks. Things were, er, tubular. Radical. Totally awesome. And so on.

Bo Knows Adolescent Male Fantasy
Bo Knows Adolescent Male Fantasy
The Costacos Brothers

The entire spectrum of '80s adolescents could relate to this kind of tongue-in-cheek absurdity. The same boys that watched rapt as geeks built a supergirl with their computer in Weird Science would necessarily identify with a superhuman-looking Bo Jackson straddling a low fog with his two sports' worth of battle gear behind him. So, perhaps this isn't exclusively a jocks vs. art nerds pursuit.

"I would love to take them to Japan next," Shopkorn says. "I think they'd instinctively get it there. There's something to these posters that works perfectly there."

He might be on to something. They love niche obsessions, with that otaku sensibility that defies traditional, artistic aesthetics ... or something.

So is it art? Sure. Is it for jocks? Yep. But it's also for nerds ... and spazzes, wasteoids, freaks, geeks and whatever else inner kids are in the nostalgia-craving public. It's a step above kitsch ... meta kitsch. So what are the next pieces of beautility that we'll be framing? Our money's on all of those Gulf War trading cards. Remember those things? Totally radical, or whatever.

The exhibition runs at Country Club Gallery through March 4, with a satellite gallery in the lobby of the Mondrian hotel. There are, of course, T-shirts for sale.

Follow @PaulTBradley and @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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