8 Contemporary Artists Taking Fresh Approaches to Sports
Since ancient times, artists and craftspeople have wrought not-quite facsimiles of the human form. They’ve idealized, warped, and parodied the figure’s proportions, erecting pedestals to memorialize its physical prowess. It’s little wonder why this practice persists: Our bodies are loaded, perplexing things that are ripe source material for image-makers. They are the flesh we carry around with us every day, stretching and sagging, taut and preened, the muscles that propel us through space and time, the limbs connecting us to land and sea, or to other bodies.
With the Tokyo Summer Olympics fast approaching, we’re touring a smattering of contemporary artists who deal with human bodies and sport. Their output isn’t singularly attuned to athletes—with forms lithe and fibrous, brawny and perspiring, faces belying some internal reality—but the bodies and (sometimes violent) gazes of spectators, which are also fixed in suspended alertness, are subject to extremes.
The women who dominate Monica Kim Garza’s urgent, gleeful paintings are body doubles and fantasy reflections of the artist herself. They sprawl and dive across the frame, or squat unapologetically in the center, looking back, straight out of the frame, as if to make sure we’re looking. Rendered in fluid brushstrokes, her nubile, assured femmes are often naked, or wear thongs with shoes and lacy socks; their buttocks round and breasts pert with cherry-red nipples.
In the most satisfying of her sport scenes, Garza’s titles rework history: She swings a golf club, unclothed, in North America / Monica Woods (2017), and as “Cristiana Ronalda,” outfitted in pink G-string and soccer cleats, she sets up the glittering black-and-white ball for a triumphant goal.
In his acrylic renderings of Black men in motion, shown recently in a solo presentation at Anna Zorina Gallery, Brooklyn-based painter Alvin Armstrong is a master of color and cropping. Bright, flattened backdrops strip athletic settings to their core elements—cloudless skies of azure blue, orange-saturated courts, the deep reds of rubberized running tracks—directing our focus to the muscular figures that inhabit them. Armstrong’s athletes are caught mid-greatness, on TV-pause, as they turn corners, dribble invisible balls, and almost fly on horseback. They wear emotive expressions: mouths agape in exhaustion or pursed determinedly, eyes closed or squinting at action outside of the frame.
That Armstrong displayed these pictures alongside tableaux where sporting signifiers are absent was not accidental. In those works, men stare at us in baggy tees, limbs outstretched and eyes wide, next to enigmatic title cards, implying a context more devastating: Gone Before You Wake Up (2020) and Left You Up, Waiting (2021). The speed and strength of Black athletes is celebrated, fetishized, when they’re entertaining America, but a shift in setting renders them vulnerable, their lives subject to violence.
Sometimes, when watching unfamiliar team sports, it is difficult to keep up: There are too many players, balls whizz out of the periphery, the stakes seem to be in constant flux. Pelle Cass is attuned to this disorientation. In fact, the photographer magnifies it via frenzied, Dionysian photographic composites that compress thousands of otherwise unaltered images, all taken from a single vantage point during games at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, and Northeastern University.
In these Where’s Waldo–esque spectacles, every player resembles the next. Balls are always in flight. Actions are hyper-compressed in a way that renders individual players obsolete—something Cass sees as “truer to memory”—creating a kind of chaotic visual symphony. More haunting, perhaps, are his composites made in 2020. In one, there are hundreds of basketballs, but people? They are gone.
In Marcin Dudek’s latest show at Harlan Levey Projects, “Slash & Burn II,” he interrogates soccer hooliganism via his own particular coming of age, as a working-class football fan in a fractured, post-communist Poland. From 1993 to 1998, Dudek was a member of the Jude Gang, an extremist fandom congregated around the country’s longest-running club, Cracovia. While nodding explicitly to the group’s visual language, the exhibition’s materials carry a universality. Bomber jackets the color of bruises have been sliced into squares and remade into a room-spanning quilt, which is shelter, shield, and smothering tool alike. An orange flare glides along a patch of gallery wall, burning it in places.
In the holy, hinge-paneled triptych Tablica (2021), gridded images depict the artist’s friends, or show gang members and prison guards coexisting with butterfly knives. They are interspersed with architectural drawings of football stadiums and jails, and legal documents with telling details removed. The work’s dimensions mirror those of Dudek’s brother’s jail cell—he served time for his involvement with the Jude Gang.
In Trans Holligans (2020), shown in the artist’s solo exhibition with LETO Gallery last year, a Volkswagen Transporter has been decimated, cut into strips, which are cross-hatched to forge a makeshift cage. Like all forms of fandom, the delinquency of hooliganism is only partly concerned with the object of its affection. Its rituals are more connected to the notion of belonging—who is permitted to fit into a jacket, who is deemed unworthy—and the erosion of oneself, trying to keep up with it all.
There is something of a paparazzo’s roving voyeurism and cruel slapstick timing in Anna Park’s kinetic tennis scenes. Made in 2019 when she was an MFA student at the New York Academy of Art, the blurred, pulsating charcoal drawings isolate split-second extremities, then blow them out for maximum impact. A ball hurls toward a player’s forehead, and her face twists into caricature: nostrils flared, left eye popping out of its socket. In Double Tap, one character takes a dive; another smacks his ass with a raquet. In the pair of works Sean and Brenda, Sean is frozen, cheeks eternally rippling, as though plunged headfirst into a wind tunnel.
Park’s freeze-frames enable an intensified means of people-watching, where the most titillating moments have been carefully selected for us and magnified. Everything else is edited out. We observe tension and release, violence and dark comedy—humans in the business of living, dealing with their own types of calamity.
In photo-editing apps, it is easy to manipulate bodies—to smooth skin, taper noses, renegotiate waistlines or thighs with fingertips, until our likeness has succumbed to some predetermined ideal. Jansson Stegner’s mannerist figurations distort sporting women in the same way, exaggerating body parts to comic effect—though the joke is never on them. Riffing on Western painting tropes, his active, slightly off depictions of strapping huntresses, archers, and volleyball players are endearing, tense, and wonderfully strange, demanding our attention. “For me,” Stegner has said, “the most important thing is some kind of psychological resonance between the figure and the viewer.”
Dutch photographer Ari Marcopoulos moved to New York at the end of 1980, right before John Lennon died. He promptly began documenting slithers of the city’s sprawling cultural ecosystem up close: Basquiat in his Crosby Street bathtub, The Fat Boys, Public Enemy. While his oeuvre is expansive, Marcopoulos’s most intimate pictures document ad hoc communities of skaters and snowboarders. He shot the former in the early 1990s. His are stark black-and-white candids of gangly figures bouncing off Manhattan’s stoops, rails, and architectural obstacles, or hanging out at The Banks—a debris-strewed area near the Brooklyn Bridge which was, for a time, a makeshift skate park. In the fast, impressionistic photos from Polaroids 92-95 (NY), boards aren’t always present, but the people are all there: hanging out on stoops together, sharing cigarettes. In one shot, a young Peter Bici holds a T-shirt in his teeth; in another, a shadowy figure drinks from a carton while his friends look up from the pavement.
In his book Transitions and Exits (2000), Marcopoulos tours with snowboarders under 25 and gets even closer. Photographs and video stills are in saturated technicolor, and we see his subjects, pimply and greasy haired and full of earned bravado. They pirouette in mid-air under white-hot competition lights, cradle busted faces, and watch porn in hotel rooms. While some of the money shots are surreal, they also transmit the strange, distinctive loneliness of adolescent life on tour, waiting for blankets of white to emerge on mountaintops, or for the next exit, curled up in an unfamiliar vehicle.
Suspension (2020), a video by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, is a moving portrait of not-quite adulthood, and a trembling visual balm. In it, the artist splices archival footage of adolescent Black and Brown gymnasts in the moments preceding performance. The score is euphonious, a little haunting. The scenes are clipped—each no more than a few seconds—tightly cropped around the teenaged competitors’ faces, stripping away external fanfare. We’re offered slivers of context, sure (a sponsor logo, a bejeweled leotard, an audience lost in pixels), but Nkosi’s framing forces us to examine faces: their vulnerability, trepidation, certainty. The precise way they take a breath.
In an interview about this work—and her related series of gymnast paintings, of anonymous girls and abstracted mats—Nkosi describes how she researched the history of gymnastics, its racism, and how it might be a metaphor for her own navigation of the art world. “It is a performance: having to perform your identity as an artist, and a Black artist,” she says. “It is judgment being witnessed, failing, succeeding, being highly visible.” In the last mini clip, her frame pulls out, revealing an athlete’s entire body, arms, and legs bending, ready to defy gravity on camera. But before the show begins, the screen cuts to black.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Marcin Dudek’s Trans Hooligans (2020) was on view at his 2021 solo exhibition at Harlan Levey Projects, “Slash & Burn II.” The work was not included in said show. The article has been corrected.