Detroit Artists Market
June 9 through July 14, 2007
For some time now, I’ve been exclaiming to anyone who will listen that the arts in Detroit need sports fans! With some 40,000 folks making it downtown every Tigers game (and 20,000 less and more for hockey and football respectively) there are a lot of people who pour into the city, who then leave just as quickly. It’s essential to reach out and offer these folks a reason to stay awhile. This means first off, being creative in opening the doors and shedding a bit of the exclusivity image of an art space, and secondly, creating something educational. By establishing an educational experience, it opens the possibilities of not simply catching a new audience’s fleeting attention for moment, but to instead help newcomers enter this arena of a different sort and become as engaged with the feats of artists as they are with those of athletes.
As far as that first goal – attracting sports fans – the Detroit Artists Market succeeds quite well in achieving it with “Baseball as Art” (though the title leaves an awful lot to be desired, I mean maybe, “The Art of Baseball,” “Artistic Responses to Baseball,” “views from leftfield,” something…. Actually, it really is “Art about Baseball.”) My cap’s off to DAM for really getting into the spirit of the sport, with an opening night that featured roasted peanuts, hot dogs, and a staff wearing Tiger jerseys. It was quite a lively event and definitely drew in a crowd of a different sort, in addition to its regular attendees. Additionally, bringing in as juror Sharon Arend, archivist for the Tigers’ owners, is a great move, and another important form of outreach.
In terms of being educational however, the exhibition doesn’t reach quite as far. It’s an entirely sincere homage to the sport of baseball making use of the tools and techniques of art, but it never treads into much deeper terrain. For some, this is just fine, it’s a definite act of outreach, it’s lighthearted – perfect for summer, it livened the place up, and brought in some fresh faces, who ended up having a good time. Perhaps this is asking too much, but it does seem worth considering the impact a stronger show on the conceptual side of things might have had in serving more as a gentle introduction to the sorts of ideas explored in art today, allowing for a more lasting crossover when the subject matter is not baseball. And the reverse could be true as well, art about baseball could open a window of greater appreciation into the game for those of us less taken with the sport to begin with (including this writer.)
That said, the work has some hits and, as is always the case with juried shows, a few misses too (“you don’t always get to show the work you want, you show the work you have.”)
What’s consistent in every artists’ work is a clear love of the game coming out in creative ways. As is the case with a sport so rich in history and statistics (who in Detroit doesn’t know when the previous Tiger no-hitter was pitched?), many of them pay tribute to the game’s storied past, of clear appeal to baseball enthusiasts in terms of expression of history and attention to craft. There’s a fair amount of nostalgia and other light-hearted fare, and a few meander into left field in terms of kitsch – take the painting of hot dogs and baseballs on buns by Lindsay Yeatts for example – quite well-executed yes, but ultimately pretty silly. On the other side of representative works stands Mario Francois Isenmann’s wonderfully rendered composition of pitcher’s hand and ball. An iconic moment, framed with enough non-specifity to allow the viewer to read his or her own narrative into the piece, but with enough substance to it for one to simply enjoy the mix of marks painted on and carved out of the surface. Yes, this all creates a composition that happens to be about baseball, but it can be appreciated regardless. Sergio DeGiusti’s relief of Tiger great Charlie Gehringer is both a tribute to this local hero, while standing on its own within the oeuvre of De Giusti’s sculptural portraiture. These works function on multiple levels and can stand on their own.
Michael Ellyson elevates the already obsessive nature of baseball fandom to a new level with a piece consisting of an entire season of baseball cards laid out in a wall-spanning grid. He’s careful cut out elements from each card and then re-positioned them with tiny wires in nearly their original position but at varying heights above surface of the card, making them into three-dimensional, pop-up like cards (all before the era of foil hologram cards too!) It’s like an exotic butterfly collection – dissected and pinned up – quite a display of creativity and compulsion.
A few artists push a little deeper on issues through the work. Robert Downs’ clever multi-part paintings are visual commentaries on internal issues within the realm of baseball. In a thoughtful, if heavy-handed piece, Gabriel R. Paavola’s “America’s Favorite Pasttime” looks at steroid use in the sport, with an over-sized syringe, with baseballs as drug in the barrel, and bat as plunger. Phillip Dewey uses baseball as microcosm of larger society. His two nicely-rendered works feature the well-known Satchel Paige and lesser-known Chet Brewer, respectively, both greats in the Negro Leagues at a time when baseball, like this country was segregated. These are accompanied by a lone curatorial aspect of the show – the number “42” quietly printed on a support beam nearby. No, this is not a reference to “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but a silent tribute to Jackie Robinson, who shattered the color barrier in baseball, and whose number is the only one retired league-wide.
These works reach towards a place that the show could use more of. It’s not that everything needs to go down that road, but the game is so intrinsically wrapped up with story of this nation, it’s a fertile terrain for exploration and asks us to go there. This brings to mind a number of works seen in Detroit over the last few years, including Eric Mesko’s shrine to the game, (permutations of which have been shown a few times around town) which connected the game’s history to his own grandfather and other relatives playing in the coal miner leagues prevalent in the day. It would fit nicely here. Somewhat in this vein, it’s worth mentioning one final piece that is in the show. Though perhaps not the strongest visually, Paul Steele’s “Playstation Won Out,” a watercolor of an empty ball field, is a haunting image. The time of Mesko’s grandfather and local leagues is fading, as the game has gotten bigger, we spend more time being spectators and video game players – the physical and social act of play is less common. Our parks sit empty – waiting to be played in again. (To that end, DAM’s final pitch in this month long celebration of the link between baseball and art will feature a game between Detroit artists and writers. A nice tribute to such games past, and perhaps going forward the start of further community activities. Check it out at 6pm July 14 at Clark Park in Detroit.)
This show is fun, to be sure, and offers a range of works particularly of interest to baseball enthusiasts. It does what it does well, and perhaps the next permutation of this positive and necessary idea will go even farther in displaying the power of art as a means of altering our perspective – and find one from which baseball fans and arts folks alike could learn from – a step towards breaking down another artificial barrier between people. That would truly be a home run. – Nick Sousanis
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