Art and Sports, Meeting on a Level Playing Field

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Want to kill an art conversation? Talk free-throw percentage. Speaking of season tickets at a gallery opening? Use your inside voice.

For too long, if you loved biennials, you didn't mention box scores. Art aficionados considered it a badge of honor to be clueless. The message: We're no brutes, not like those sports people.

Sure, the New York art world was attracted to the athleticism of Matthew Barney's early 1990s work -- tackling a football blocking sled in a video screened at his first major show -- but for the most part, Chelsea has resisted artists who leave sweat stains in the gallery.

Today, Barney's spirit seems to hover over a small but potent exhibition called "Hard Targets: Masculinity and Sport," on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art here though Jan. 18. Curated by Christopher Bedford, the show may encourage the creatives to admit their "Monday Night Football" habits.

Bedford's six-person exhibition interprets sport in modes anthropological and psychoanalytic; that is, terms art-heads can understand. Bedford would know: At Oberlin College, he majored in art history while playing on the school's football team.

"Hard Targets" doesn't neuter sport's visceral pleasures. Visitors may seize the opportunity to watch the 2006 France-Italy World Cup final in its red-card, head-butting entirety (while, ahem, examining issues of surveillance and the packaging of sport for mass audiences).

And at its core, "Hard Targets" confirms that fans and art enthusiasts have at least one thing in common: They're unrelenting voyeurs. To that end, a sizable chunk of the show addresses the erotics of looking.

A video by New York City-born artist Collier Schorr opens the show with footage of teenage wrestlers. Awash in pillow lips, sweat and the girlish-boyness of adolescent men, the video is a study for Schorr's large-scale photographs hanging elsewhere in the show. Those big color pictures are rendered with chiaroscuro light effects that enhance the drama and corporeality of the athletes, who are at once pimply and idealized.

Schorr also reminds us that the athletic body is, above all, sculptural.

Chiseled by trainers and bench presses, professional ballplayers may not match the Greeks' High Classical ideal, but they nonetheless evoke an Olympiad's worth of statuary.

Feminism and race intersect in Mark Bradford's basketball video "Practice." Bradford, who is tall and black, enacts an absurdist ballet about race-based assumptions -- you should play basketball -- by shooting hoops in a dress made with a massive, awkward bustle (conspicuously fashioned in L.A. Lakers-like gold and purple). Struggling to find his shot while literally wrestling his outfit, Bradford speaks to the history of constricting womens wear and, metaphorically, women's roles, even as he speaks to similar constraints of race.

To see Bradford's piece, one must walk around or through Queens-based multimedia artist Shaun El C. Leonardo's intimidating installation "Bull in the Ring." A single black football helmet is ringed by 10 more; all hang head-high to suggest a circle of players. The setup mimics a training routine in which one player is attacked from all sides as if he were a matador surrounded by bulls. Meant to sharpen the player's peripheral awareness, the scrimmage is aggressive, masculine and ritualistic.

Where there is ritual, there is fetish. Canadian artist Brian Jungen toys with the accouterments of sport, literally refashioning them to alter their meaning. He cut up, splayed and reattached five golf bags to form a shaft 12 feet high that bears an uncanny resemblance to a totem pole (the artist belongs to British Columbia's Dane-zaa Nation, and his references are to Canadian First Nations artifacts).

Jungen also takes his scissors to Nike Air Jordans, which he restitches into objects suitable to a natural history museum. Among others, he presents a mask, a giraffe-like head and something resembling a small whale. In Jungen's hands, sports gear takes on the veneer of artifact, which it will inevitably become.

Soccer fans get their due with Czech-born Harun Farocki's 12-channel video "Deep Play." A dozen monitors screen action on and off the field of that 2006 France vs. Italy World Cup final. One video shows the game tracked by software that renders players as dots and name tags; another focuses on Zinedine Zidane as translated into a stubby robotic avatar.

Elsewhere we see camera footage and hear German television producers calling for slow motion, new camera angles and sympathetic crowd shots befitting the unfolding action (the producers' orders are subtitled in English). Farocki's relentless visuals reveal how tightly these games are monitored, and how calculated their production is.

The complexities of competition revealed in "Deep Play" remind us why so many smart people love sports. It's about unraveling intention, analyzing moves and soaking up images.

You know, like art.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company