New Sculptures at Nationals Park: Swings and Misses

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

I wouldn't want to choose between baseball and fine art: They both show off our glorious human talent for taking pleasure, and finding meaning, in perfectly useless activities.

The comparison came to mind yesterday when the District government unveiled four new works of public art at Nationals Park. Just inside the center-field gates, there are now three larger-than-life bronzes of past greats of Washington baseball: Josh Gibson, Frank Howard and Walter Johnson. They are by an Israeli-born sculptor named Omri Amrany, who is based in Highwood, Ill., and specializes in sports art.

At the unveiling, Amrany said his goal was to use bronze to go beyond the physical so as to capture speed and time, "the fourth dimension." Rather than zooming, however, his bronze appears to glop. It has the unfortunate effect of making his players seem covered in tumorous growths. They also get multiple arms. The creature designers from "Star Trek" have rarely played this fast and loose with bodies.

Hanging from the ceiling by the food concessions above the first-base line, Washington artist Walter Kravitz's four big, colorful mobiles, covered in wacky cutout ballplayers. I showed them to one baseball-mad informant -- my nephew Trevor, who once helped take the District's Little League team to the national playoffs -- and he said they left him cold. Their Scooby Doo colors and "weirdly distorted shapes" had nothing to do with the grace and power he looks for in baseball. "I really don't like how they did the bodies," he said.

As for the grace and power we expect from significant art, forget about finding it in any of these works. Translated into baseball terms, a team would have to place dead last in the major leagues to rank as low as this work does as art. Come to think of it, these four pieces may count as the Washington Nationals of art.

Kravitz's mobiles are likely to be universally inoffensive, and universally uninspiring. They feel of a piece with the playful advertising imagery and logos on the concession stalls nearby. I am certain that, for regular visitors to the ballpark, they will fade into the background just as quickly.

Amrany's bronzes are weirder. You'd imagine that, at very least, they'd work simply to commemorate their three dedicatees. That they'd be the figurative equivalent of a plaque with a name on it: a symbol of the honor we hold these players in, even if the art itself does them no honor. Instead, Amrany makes Gibson, Howard and Johnson look so peculiar, their own mothers might not recognize them. Amrany says that the bronze growths that push out from the players' backs and legs are meant somehow to indicate the momentum of their actions; that their multiple limbs are meant to convey the players' moving parts. Instead, his bronzes look like how you'd commemorate the Elephant Man, if he'd been a Baseball Hall of Famer.

The challenge of rendering motion in distinctly static metal has almost undone some of the greats of modern art. Over at the Hirshhorn Museum, there's a wonderful 1914 bronze by Raymond Duchamp-Villon (brother to the more famous Marcel) that almost captures the energy of a speeding horse -- almost. His colleague Giacomo Balla, one of the masters of Italian futurism, used metals of all kinds to try to render speed. He very nearly succeeded. There's no hint of any of these earlier efforts in Amrany's bronzes. That's one reason they fail so badly.

"We are in a world of our own," Amrany said, when asked how his studio's output relates to all the rest of contemporary art. He couldn't be more right.

And for this, taxpayers have coughed up $600,000, according to Gloria Nauden, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. That funding, she said, came out of the 1 percent of city capital budgets set aside each year for public art.

But think how it could have been used. One of the glories of baseball is its hoard of stats. At yesterday's unveiling of the bronzes, Matthew Cutts, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, praised their three subjects in terms of the home runs and perfect games and RBIs and ERAs they had racked up. One baseball lover (my nephew, again) was way more compelled by the records carved into the sculptures' plinths than by the faces and bodies above.

And it so happens that there's nothing that serious contemporary artists are better at working with than data and archives. Think of sparkling LED readouts of stats in honor of these players, or a stylish video compilation of the footage and photographs that keep their memories alive. And think of how much more attention that could grab than the stale, complacent art that we've paid for. According to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the "significant artworks" the commission just unveiled are supposed to turn our efficiently humdrum ballpark into an "arts destination." If only that were true.

At their best, baseball and fine art are a lot alike. Both are esoteric, meaning everything to fans and little to outsiders. Both push up against a convoluted set of rules. Both get a lot of their meaning from the great plays and players of the past, and how new ones stack up against them. But what was unveiled yesterday in our new ballpark is a version of contemporary art that's so simplified and trivialized that it's like baseball without the subtle rules that make the game deserve a die-hard fan's attention: no fouling out on a third-strike bunt, no infield fly rule, no penalty for a pitcher who balks or a runner who fails to tag up on a fly ball. (One page on the Web revels in the 23 different ways that a batter can get to first base. And they say conceptual art is artificial and needlessly involved!)

Even a sports buff who knows little and cares less about contemporary art understands the notion that complexity and subtlety are what pay off in the end. And that any game that's too easy to get, right off, may not be worth watching.

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