At Middlebury College, a provocative exhibit considers the male athlete
“Josh” by Catherine Opie
Sports and art: never the twain shall meet? Most of us would rarely talk about those two endeavors in the same conversation. Nor do we go to a gallery and expect to see pictures of, say, the Lakers. And we certainly don’t hear NFL commentators dissecting the quarterback’s latest art exhibit.
A new show at the Middlebury College Museum of Art kicks old norms to the sidelines. To borrow another term from jocks, “Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity in Sports” is a whole new ball game. Male athletes are the overt subjects of these photographs, paintings, installations and videos, while the various subtexts include gender training and identity, homophobia, class, bodies, branding, and a host of culturally manufactured beliefs and biases.
It’s a heady mix, yet subtle; a viewer could take in the entire exhibit without pausing to consider any of these things. In a way, that subtlety is a positive; it means the artists do not take easy shots or force their audience to Think Deep Thoughts. On the other hand, it would be a shame if viewers missed the opportunity to do just that, or if the only idea they came away with was that a bunch of artists finally decided athletes were worth considering. And, by the way, the artwork here is very good, though more groundbreaking conceptually than aesthetically.
To be sure, this is not the first time artists have depicted athletes in their work — one need look no further than Burlington artist Lance Richbourg’s paintings of iconic baseball players. But an exploration of male identity in the context of sports is relatively new in both academia and art, and it echoes feminist work in both realms several decades ago. It’s apropos in a collegiate setting, where the school’s very athletes may be strangers to the gallery on campus. At Middlebury, the exhibit places work in the sports complex and the library, as well — luring students, one hopes, to view the rest.
“Mixed Signals” is a nationally touring exhibit organized by New York-based Independent Curators International. It grew out of an earlier show called “Hard Targets — Masculinity and Sports” that was curated by Christopher Bedford for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Bedford, now the curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, guest-curated this version, as well. He spoke at Middlebury for the exhibit’s opening on February 9. His lecture, titled “Breaking the Huddle,” can be viewed in its entirety on the museum’s website.
In it, Bedford gives an overview of popular notions of masculinity and sport, discussing specific pieces in the show and the backgrounds of some of the artists. There are 42 works by 15 artists, all but two of them male, ranging in age from 32 to 50. Some are African American, some Latino, and more than one is gay and a former athlete — a combination that begs inquiry. Bedford barely scratches the surface in his nearly hourlong talk, which indicates just how much there is to contemplate in this exhibit, and in the artistic, sociological and psychological contexts it reflects.
Similarly, there is not space enough here to give “Mixed Signals” its due. But perhaps a few examples will entice readers to take in the show themselves.
Lesbian photographer and UCLA art prof Catherine Opie is best known for her 1990s queer portraits, but her works in this exhibit are a world apart: unadorned portraits of high school football players, looking vulnerable sans gear; and large-scale tableaux of teams on the field, brightly illuminated for a nighttime game. The latter Opie calls “landscapes,” a term that forces the viewer to reframe this classic American scene.
Hawaiian-born photographer/videographer Paul Pfeiffer focuses on the world of professional basketball. Two of the 48-by-60-inch digital prints from his “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” series look, at first glance, like straightforward game shots. There are two stark differences: The views of the players are from foot level, looking up; and each player is utterly alone on the court, though the stands are full of attentive fans. The images speak to the intense pressure and monumental celebrity of such players, not to mention their sheer physical size. They are compelling both in their “What’s wrong with this picture?” quality and their surreality.
In another pair of startling photographs, Hank Willis Thomas addresses the objectification of the male athlete’s body and the commodification, aka branding, endemic in professional sports. In one sepia-toned image, titled “Scarred Chest,” a man’s buff torso fills the frame; just out of sight are his genitals, while the midsection presents six-pack abs. The scarification appears just above the breastbone in the form of nine Nike swooshes. Thomas’ other photo, “Basketball and Chain,” is a commercial-looking shot with a black background and punning, albeit unfunny, symbolism. At the top are the ostensibly leaping feet of a player in complicated sneakers; one ankle is attached to a chain, at the end of which hangs a basketball bearing the letters “NBA.”
Mark Bradford’s three-minute video, called simply “Practice,” is riveting. In it, the artist himself — a nearly 7-foot-tall, gay African American — shoots hoops alone on some generic outdoor court. He is clad in a bright gold and purple Lakers uniform, with one outrageous variation: instead of shorts, he wears an enormous, cumbersome, antebellum-era hoop skirt that billows as he moves and occasionally trips him up. The work, though vaguely comical, is layered with deeper meanings.
Many other sights, and sounds, complete the experience of “Mixed Signals.” And then there are the lectures. Curator Bedford’s talk was the first of four programmed in conjunction with the exhibit that give it more intellectual heft. Next Wednesday, February 23, Midd professor of American studies Tim Spears delivers a lecture entitled “Big Men in Slow Motion: The Autumnal Turn in Contact Sports.” By “autumnal,” he means “not just the season in which people play football,” says Spears in a phone conversation, “but also the autumnal time in a man’s life.”
Spears, a third-generation football player who is writing a book about his Hall of Famer grandfather and father — and, inherently, a history of collegiate football — is interested in how society views the aging athlete and the deteriorating athletic body. In particular, he’s “looking at contact sports … and how the current research being done on head injury and [later] dementia is going to change the narrative” of violence in sports. Spears notes that football “is equated to some version of masculinity — it was very clear when the sport was evolving in the 19th century, and is still true today,” he says. “But I think it’s changed; I’m trying to get at how that relationship has changed.”
Spears talks about how, at universities and colleges in particular, “it was understood that football had a necessary degree of roughness that helped men become men.” Middlebury assistant professor of sociology Laurie Essig elaborates on that theme in her talk on March 2, titled “Manning Up: Thoughts on Sports, Sex and Power.” She says that, as the middle class evolved in the post-Civil War era, “there was some cultural anxiety about masculinity.” It was thought that sports “would save men from the softness” of, essentially, desk jobs. Essig links this to the “muscular Christianity movement” that came out of Great Britain and involved the YMCA. In America, Teddy Roosevelt was a big proponent of physical fitness and robust manhood.
What has this history got to do with sports as we know them today, or, for that matter, with “Mixed Signals”? Lineage. The anxiety about masculinity that Essig describes has been transmuted into the hyperaggression and repressed emotionality of sports, along with homophobia, hierarchical structure and the glorification of brute strength. Today’s athlete, especially at the professional level, could hardly be called sensitive.
Unless he’s Charles Barkley. Say what? The former NBA star turned television sports announcer is the subject of a recent essay by Dave Zirin, sports editor for the Nation, author (his latest book is Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love) and host of the weekly “Edge of Sports Radio” on Sirius. He wrote about Barkley not for his former prowess on the court but for his strident support of gay rights. Zirin presents a talk at Midd on April 6 entitled “Sports and Resistance in the United States: A Political Legacy.” In a phone conversation from his home near Washington, D.C., he says Barkley is the most recent in a line of athletes who were outspoken for their time: Think Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Martina Navratilova.
Zirin’s interest in sports is not just about players and stats; it’s about the way social movements intersect with that world. “I think sports is a more fertile ground than many other cultural soils,” he says. “Athletes tend to come from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds and command much more of an audience.” That helps explain, Zirin believes, why an activist sports hero may have more influence than, say, a movie or rock star — and reach a different constituency, as well.
Can an art exhibit have as strong an impact on public consciousness? Maybe not. But, in Zirin’s view, anything that looks at sports through a wider lens is good.
Certainly anyone who takes in “Mixed Signals” will no longer view male athletes as simply winners or losers. And that alone could be a game changer.