March Madness: All-Woman Gallery Looks at Athleticism

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Holly Bass, NWBA #9 (Multi), 2012

The art of the Fort Gansevoort Gallery is laid out over three shallow floors. Only a block away from the immaculate structure of the Whitney Museum which looms over the squatty old buildings, cobblestone roads, and shuffling Saturday pedestrian traffic like a massive steel ghost. The entrance to the gallery is slightly hidden in a narrow street corner hugged by old buildings, and can only be noticed from the street by a fold-out sign next to the stairs that reads, “Fort Gansevoort – March Madness.”

I felt odd at first entering the space. The first humans I encountered were a group of elderly art-hoppers who I met at the door, still chatting with the two young women working the front desk as they took in my urgent attitude and and bright patterned jacket with speculative glares.

Fort Gansevoort Gallery feels like a home, more specifically it feels like wandering a rich relatives collection room while you pretend to take a shit for a half hour. I found the art difficult to engage with at first, there were many photos of places and people taken by well-known artists like Sadie Barnett and Catherine Opie which felt nice to walk past but I couldn’t yet find interesting. Not enough people were in the room to create enough distance between me and the employees at the desk, and their observation clung to my every action and thought as I tiptoed past each piece.

It wasn’t until I took in the glorious eye-candy that is Holly Bass’s NWBA photos that I felt I finally began to ease into the tone of athleticism and femininity. In #1 (Jordan) a woman is captured in a sports photography style, her muscles greasy and flared, jumping with two basketballs attached to her ass. In the last portrait, #7 Crowned, the woman is kneeling beneath a basketball net floating above her head like a halo. Her head is resting on her chin as she looks into the distance and appears quietly consumed by thought.

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Holly Bass, NWBA #7 (Crown), 2012

I’m not into sports, and when I say I’m not into sports I mean I have absolutely zero interest in watching games, keeping up with teams, retaining stats, observing records, or watching athletes fulfilling dreams. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant. I grew up in a small town in the south where much of the community involvement was centered around sports. And thus, whether I intended to or not, I too became a part of it. I was in the band and went to every football game, I was in the yearbook and did weekly shoots of basketball tournaments and softball games, I cheered with fans and seeked emotional moments and without trying I too became an observer and participant of an entire matrix of activity that can sometimes feel religious. And while I personally can’t with the inner workings of sports as a whole, I can appreciate the unifying qualities it creates in communities.

Although this collection of art is centered around a single theme, it’s interesting to see the different points of view and depth each artist uniquely possesses. I’d also like to comment that this gallery is undeniably one of the most interesting all-female shows I’ve seen put on this year. By putting a female lense on an activity that is commonly dominated by masculinity, we create a study on the emotional and physical experience of sports, women’s empowerment, and female representation in athleticism. I could just keep going.

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Emma Amos, 22 and Cheetah, 1983

The body of work is extremely diverse. Black Lightning by Alison Saar, includes a pair of translucent boxing gloves pinned to the wall, half filled with blood, attached by a tube to a bucket on the ground, paired with a mop stained light red. There are figurative paintings and drawings studying the physical and emotional engagement within competition: a girl skipping rope, two men boxing, two women standing apart with their hair tied together into a know. Amateurish tapestries that distort stereotypical motivational slogans and poke into more satirical comments on meat-head athleticism. One displaying the statement “Rejection Becomes Alcoholism and Addiction.” A skateboard ramp built from acrylic nails. A few pieces studied African American culture in quilting and tapestry by Emma Amos and Faith Ringgold. A medium that is now more popularly regarded in celebration to women and a symbol of feminism after the Women’s March on Washington, in which knitting was a subtle but not-so-quiet statement on the importance of equality.

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Jordan Casteel, Marcus and Jace, 2015

The one piece that really drew me in and that I continue to think about in relationship to all the rest is Marcus and Jace, by Jordan Casteel. The painting features a father and son sitting next to each other in a room. In the portrait, the father’s shoes are kicked off, his legs crossed, his arm draped over his sleeping son’s chair. He appears to be gently fixated on something occurring in front of him. The only nod to sports in the piece are team flags hanging on the wall in the background. When I began to think of it’s relation to women my mind unfolded into map of possibilities: a mother, a sister, a Grandmother, an observer of the bond created between these two men by sports. Standing in front of the large piece the father was looking at me, his body relaxed, afternoon sunlight seeping through a window striping his face, and in a smallish way I felt that was it. That something as simple as a father and son sitting together to watch an afternoon game is the honest portrayal of how sports unite people in small ways.  

March Madness is up until Saturday, May 6th, at the Fort Gansevoort Gallery on 5 Ninth Avenue, New York, NY, 10014.

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Holly Bass, NWBA #5 (Dunk), 2012
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