Sculptcha and Spawts
Recently, a friend who’s charitably been reading my blogs pointed out an error. In “Beer in the Bullpen,” I’d written ‘Giacometti’ (noted twentieth-century sculptor) instead of ‘Giametti’ (noted twentieth-century baseball commissioner). My friend then challenged me to create a blog about sculpture and sports. He’s a New Englander, so that came out as Sculptcha and Spawts.
Because it’s March Madness time, sports (or spawts) are much on my mind. At this point, I don’t have a lot to say about the NCAA Tournament, as my brackets remain up in the air yet sinking fast (thanks a bunch, Long Beach State and Harvard). So I’ve been thinking about sculpture – perhaps the art form I love the most – and sports. Which makes me think about what I value about sports. And sculpture.
Sports: There’re the exciting competitions and the home-town/alma mater boasting aspects, certainly, but there’s also the aesthetic spectacle of beautiful human bodies performing beautifully. What is more visually stunning than a slam dunk or home-run swing? What’s more pattern-enthralling than football formations or soccer attacks? What brings more brief bursts of uncomplicated joy than watching your team or favorite athlete win (obviously the joy of actually being a winning athlete is more complex, but I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of that experience)?
Sculpture: Works that speak to me have always been figural. My favorite sculptor is Bernini; right behind come Michelangelo (as sculptor, not as painter), the creators of the blown-up Bamiyan Buddhas, Archipenko, Anyi and Mumuye carvers, and, yes, Giacometti. These known and unknown artists share a fascination with the expressive human body, whether naturalistically or abstractly rendered. On another register, sculpture – like sports – is, for me, extremely hard to do. (I can draw, and maybe paint, but wrangling recalcitrant materials into some sort of form? No way.) Thus I really respect those who can do it at all, much less do it well.
So what’s the connection between sports and sculpture? The ideal human body? Yes, in part . . . but also a body in motion (arrested motion, in the case of sculpture), either performing to its highest potential or exemplifying a state of fully realized human being-ness. Even hierarchic sculpture can convey a sense of sub-surface motion, the mental and sometimes physical struggles preparatory to spiritual or political victory.
One could conclude, therefore, that sculptors often depict bodies engaged in sports, as the intersection of contested emotional investment and maximum physical display should be irresistible. But it hasn’t been. In the West, painters occasionally have depicted the ‘sports body’ (e.g. George Bellows, even Leroy Neiman), but sculptors usually have not.
A major reason, I think, is that sports in today’s Euro-American cultures (and probably in all Western culture after Christians v. Lions ceased being Super Bowl-sized attractions) has carved out its own space, a monetized space that artists want to avoid except when it comes to marketing their own works.
Concrete monetized spaces like stadiums and arenas often do display commissioned sports sculptures of heroes like Hank Aaron or Walter Payton. Some of these are nice enough pieces, but placements near concession stands and ticket booths degrade their ‘real art’ credentials. As adjuncts to massive commercial enterprises, they are not that different from the bobble-head dolls on sale nearby, except that their proportions are better, they’re bigger, and they’re made of more durable materials.
This need not be the case: one only has to look back at Greco-Roman sculpture to see that portraying the ideal body engaged in sports competition was a completely legitimate way to reify cultural ideals and to show off one’s sculptural talents. (See the photo of Myron’s “Discus Thrower” [a replica] that heads this blog.)
I therefore offer for your consideration the sculptures of Ousmane Sow. This Senegalese artist is known for vigorously rendered bodies in combat; often, these bodies are engaged in wrestling matches.
Wrestling is a traditional sport in West Africa. It’s more a test, allied to male initiation grades and warrior status, than a sport as the West understands ‘sport’ (English geek alert: re-read Chinua Achebe’s novels). But it depends upon competition, physical prowess, and style just as contemporary Western sports do.
Sow, in my opinion, does more than any other contemporary artist, from any part of the world, to elevate the agon of sports into compelling visual statements. Below are photos of some of his works; they are over-life-sized, and the medium is an always-changing glop (glue, thatch, mud, pigments, etc. on a wire armature). The sculptures’ scale and texture give them a viscerally moving immediacy. They also suggest palimpsests of competition, triumph, and suffering -- individual and historical.
My blog entry today contains no particular argument. Instead, I’m using my friend’s sculptcha and spawts challenge to share my enthusiasm for a talented, intriguing artist. Sow is well known in Europe (he now lives in Paris) and in West Africa. It’s only fairly recently that he’s made waves in the United States art world. So if you, like me, need a break from contemplating your woefully weak brackets, try contemplating instead the powerful sculptures of Ousmane Sow.