Americans have few common spaces or vocabularies. Our divides — red-blue, urban-rural, black-white and plenty of others — have a created an America in which it is entirely possible for Americans to avoid people who are not like them, who don’t think like them, who are somehow different. We’ve turned everything from children’s books to women’s bodies into a battleground. We can’t even agree on definitions of globally accepted terms: Climate change and evolution are accepted science, but to American conservatives they’re a falsehood (and, on unexpectedly warm January days, the butt of jokes.) “Terrorism” seems like a straightforward word, but right-wingers apply it only to Muslims, not to evangelical, government-haters who commit acts of, well, terrorism. [Image: Catherine Opie, Football Landscape #5, (Juneau vs. Douglas, Juneau, Alaska), 2007.]
If there’s one ‘place’ where Americans come together, it’s sports. We cheer for our kids’ teams together, for our hometown hockey team, and for the women who now play volleyball at our alma mater, even if we graduated from State U. 20 years ago and can”t name a single volleyball player — from 20 years ago or now. Because sport is such an unusually shared American landscape, it should be no surprise that American artists have long used sports or athletes in their work. For artists, using references that are points of national commonality is a good artistic strategy. In pro wrestling parlance: It helps get the work over.
Looking back: George Bellows and Thomas Eakins painted boxers. In 1962 Andy Warhol used a news image of New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris in Baseball, his first photo-silkscreened canvas. (The previous year Maris had become a breakout star by breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record.) Robert Rauschenberg included athletes in each of his Rebus paintings.
Artists, more than anyone this side of legendary magazine writer Gary Smith, have been interested in sports not because of who wins or loses a particular game, but because of what sport can reveal to us about our society. Artists even take it a step further, using sports as a conceptual launching pad from which to make points about societal contradictions or under-examined truths.
“Hard Targets” an exhibition on view through April 11 at the Wexner Center for the Arts examines how artists are using sport. The show, curated by Christopher Bedford, presents artists exploring two primary themes: The places where hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism overlap in sport and the way in which sport is a site of social mobility. The show is notable for catching many artists — including Catherine Opie, Sam Taylor-Wood, Hank Willis-Thomas, Jeff Koons, Collier Schorr and the tag-team of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno — at the top of their, er, game. When artists are self-motivated to reach audiences beyond the commercialist art ghetto, they free themselves to make their strongest work. (A much smaller version of this show was on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2008. Independent Curators International has also circulated a much smaller version of this show.)
This is the kind of exhibition that more contemporary art museums should present. It positions artists as important observers and chroniclers of contemporary conditions rather than as mere formalists or as collectible pawns. It’s particularly noteworthy that in a season when some kunsthalles are emphasizing the gap that exists between contemporary art and audience and between the artist’s idea and the reasons that art is on view, the Wexner is pointedly engaging audiences outside the art ghetto. The museum has even found ways to involve Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel and Buckeye gridiron legend Archie Griffin in the presentation of the show. Best of all, the Wexner and the exhibition manage to widen art’s circle without dumbing down the show, its content or muting the points of view of the included artists. [Image above: Hank Willis Thomas, Scarred Chest, 2003.]
Tomorrow and Wednesday: Looking at the show’s two primary themes.