Pittsburgh Tribune

A & E: Museums
July 3rd, 2011
Artists tackle sports images at Andy Warhol Museum Read more: Artists tackle sports images at Andy Warhol Museum – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Kurt Shaw

As an awkward and painfully shy youth growing up in South Oakland, Andy Warhol may not have been good at team sports. But he grew up to become as famous as any sports figure was in his day. And, in fact, he photographed and even painted quite a few sports figures of prominence in 1977, when art collector Robert Weisman commissioned him to create portraits of prominent athletes such as boxer Muhammad Ali, basketball giant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

The Andy Warhol Museum combines the two seemingly opposite pastimes — sports and art — in the current exhibit “Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity in Sports.”

Despite the changes in attitudes about sexual and social identity over the past few decades, the time-honored image of the male athlete as an aggressive, overtly heterosexual, hyper-competitive and emotionally remote subject remains.

The work featured in this exhibit offers alternative views of masculinity and sport by exploring the stereotypes, rituals and specialized gear of this male-dominated world. Each of the 15 artists included examines the way masculinity is performed and presented in a sporting context.

For example, Marcelino Goncalves’ painting “Receiver” depicts a sexually ambiguous football player enthusiastically cheering from the sidelines, questioning the underlying implications of sports and its connection to male bonding.

Hank Willis Thomas’ piece “Something to Stand on: The Third Leg” takes an all-too-familiar version of “Jumpman,” the famous silhouette image of Michael Jordan jumping for a basket used to promote Air Jordan products, and makes it into a statement about male virility as associated with sports. And Catherine Opie presents high-school jocks as if poster-boys in an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement with her photographs that are each filled with equal parts intensity and a subtle, underlying sexuality.

In similar fashion, Collier Schorr’s “Anonymous Cowboy” presents a young rodeo cowboy in a stance of equal confidence to Opie’s football players — representing another sport that may not be as common.

Paul Pfeiffer hones in on an ordinary televised NBA basketball game to create a jarring still-life of a basketball once in play with his video piece “John 3:16.” To create the piece, Pfeiffer painstakingly manipulated and reprocessed 5,000 digital frames, removing the presence of the athletes on the court, leaving only the ball, which appears to be defying gravity as it hovers in midair on a tiny video monitor. The resultant jittery image of this single basketball has a trance-like effect and is difficult to turn away from.

Male identity gives way to brand identity in Thomas’ photograph “Scarred Chest,” in which an athlete’s bare torso appears physically altered with nine Nike “swoosh” logos that look like scars. The image, with its perfect lighting and seamless Photoshop work, straddles the line between art and advertisement, leaving the viewer to question the importance and integrity of each.

So too does Brian Jungen’s installation, “Michael,” in which more than half a dozen Air Jordan shoe boxes are arranged in the middle of the gallery in a small pile, revealing Jordan’s portrait, complete with a cold, competitive stare, on the lid of each box. No doubt, no regular Warhol Museum visitor will go without making a connection between Jungen’s shoe boxes and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes.

But perhaps most arresting are two photographic prints by Lyle Ashton Harris from his “Memoirs of Hadrian” series in which the artist presents himself as a prizefighter in the midst of a match: gloved, bare-chested, semi-clad, bloodied and bruised. In one of the images, he appears to be hitting himself. In this way, the artist presents the concept of conflict as both an emotional and physical manifestation all at once.

Then there is Shaun El C. Leonardo’s installation “Bull in the Ring.” If you ever wanted to get the feeling of standing in the middle of a football huddle, this installation will provide. The piece takes the form of 11 helmeted mannequin heads hanging from the ceiling at eye level, forming a huddle. The heads are anonymous representations, which are made all the more ominous by this fact. The idea of the team is underscored as a more beneficial alternative to a single individual or competitor. That kind of team spirit, as implied in this piece, can be rather daunting. And that’s the idea.