Artists of all stripes play with baseball's cherished rules, regulations, and regalia
Warm weather means baseball—and baseball art. The game has attracted a steady stream of interest—from folk artists to conceptualists—and its appeal is as diverse as the artists who love it, whether for its rigorous structure or out of pure nostalgia, for the musty gloves or the peanuts.
Last year, nine photographers spent baseball season at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in North Carolina, examining every aspect of the Triple A minor league games played there, from the thunderheads that pile above the field to the kids’ drawings pinned to the locker rooms walls. Commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham, the photographs in Bull City Summer by Alec Soth, Hank Willis Thomas, Kate Joyce and Hiroshi Watanabe and others observe this friendly low-key version of America’s pastime as played by the successful farm team for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Each photographer took to different aspects of the game: Hank Willis Thomas looked at the crowd, picturing the smiling occupant of each seat for rows at a time, in close to 1500 portraits in all. Kate Joyce, whose baseball work is on view at Rick Wester Fine Art, also uses a grid, inventorying the contents of empty drink cups (brightly colored liquid, plastic spoons, French fries) and the dusty impressions made by balls striking the blue stadium walls. Hiroshi Watanabe photographed the specialized mask and leg guards worn by a catcher. Shot in warm black and white, the objects resemble medieval armor or sections of the shells of giant insects.
Further north, photographer Jon Plasse made his own solitary study of a beloved stadium – the old Yankee Stadium, torn down in 2009. Shown this spring at Bosi Contemporary, his black and white studies include fans swirling around the hot dog vendor, the field at a packed night game, and a patch of sky framed by the entrance to the upper deck. Where the Duhram Bulls’ games seem sweetly laid back, Plasse’s Yankees crackle and the crowds surge.
Red and blue bungee cords, crowbars, and miniature cactus were some of the materials from Home Depot that Lee Walton used to draw a real-time map of the first game in the 2013 World Series, as a part of “The Art of Sport” at CEPA Gallery in Buffallo. On a wall-sized scorecard, Walton and assistants tracked each action, climbing the wall to add outs as they occurred. The result was an elegant record of the game made from the stuff of American male weekends.
Vincent Kohler’s baseball bats are not regulation. For his series “Turnaround,” the Swiss artist carved 30 whimsical bats on a lathe, each made from a different species of wood. Spheres and spirals suggest table legs, and a few pieces were left raw—bark-covered tree branches end in a smooth grip and a carefully carved knob. The game that might be played with them is surreal. Commissioned for the Heerenschürli sports center in Zurich, which includes the first real ballpark in Switzerland, “Turnaround” suggests that while Americans may have finally embraced soccer, Europeans are still at odds with baseball.
David La Spina is interested in baseball memorabilia. While collecting gloves and uniforms on eBay, he was intrigued by the differences in value that come from the touch of certain players, a phenomenon not unlike the art world’s insistence on provenance and its fascination with the hand of the artist. For his show in April at Primetime in Brooklyn, La Spina, dressed meticulously as his favorite players, performed some of baseball’s cherished rituals, staging an opening day parade at the gallery and striking out 14 times in a row.
His pursuit of authenticity extended to filling the gallery with 1500 pounds of red clay to build a regulation pitchers mound, and the dirt added a bit of patina to the balls and helmet he could now label as “game used.” Growing up, says La Spina, “I liked baseball but I wasn’t very good and I didn’t get to play much.” This was his chance.