SHE GOT GAME presents women’s sports as an arena for radical redefinition of the self and slippage across boundaries of class, gender, and race. The bodies of strong female athletes often resist mass-media conventions for depicting women as passive, sexualized, and necessarily hetero-normalized. Accordingly, many of the eleven artists included here employ images of women in sports in order to scramble traditional gender roles. From Martin Schoeller’s larger-than-life-sized images of women bodybuilders—oily, vein-knotted torsos topped by incongruously makeup-laden faces—to Dewey Nicks’s video of muscular tennis superstars moving in balletic slow motion amidst puffs of glitter and colored smoke, this show traffics in contradictions. These artists confront viewers with sport-related images and experiences in order to dazzle, to disorient, and to challenge long-held beliefs and attitudes.
Mind you, it’s not like women’s sports has always been a zone of empowerment. In the past, both professional sports and the visual arts have kept women on the sidelines. Even now the legends of heroic male painters and hard-charging male athletes still dominate both arenas.
In 1985, the anonymous performance collective the Guerrilla Girls famously observed that only 5% of the subjects of artworks in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection were women, and 83% of those were nudes. As recently as 2007, critic Jerry Saltz took the Museum of Modern Art in NYC to task for consistently under-representing women artists in its exhibits. By Saltz’s count, of the artworks on view in the museum that year, only 3.5% were made by women. Despite awareness of the problem in a broad cross-section of major museums—and a lot of hand wringing by curators and administrators who have tried to publicly address the problem—the disparity remains with us.
It’s been a long, continuing fight for women in sports, too. This show opens just a few months shy of the 40th anniversary for Title IX, the historic legislation that aimed to level the playing field for women athletes—ultimately increasing their participation in college athletics some 450% over four decades. Yet the strong female athlete has emerged as a celebrated popular icon only since the 1990s, most notably with the 1996 Olympics. Declared “The Year of the Woman” by the press, 1996 brought gold medals for women’s soccer and basketball; a 65% female viewership of the games overall; and, in the aftermath, the formation of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Three years later, the Women’s World Cup final soccer match between the U.S and China would become the most attended women’s sporting event ever, with over 90,000 fans in the crowd and 40 million American viewers watching from home. These numbers are heartening, but our country is still far from anything resembling equality for female athletes.
Tara Mateik, "Putting the Balls Away," installation view, 2006-12
Given this history, it’s not surprising that some athletes have used women’s sports as a front for stealth feminist action. Various claims have been made for women’s bodybuilding as a laboratory for physical experimentation. Do the ripped, dehydrated bodies of Kim Harris and Christine Roth present a destabilizing force, a third-wave feminist refusal of gender as traditionally defined? Or are they instead outsized metaphors for a new unhealthy ideal body image for young women, or a tacit acceptance of the culture of hyper-masculinity in sports? Regardless of Martin Schoeller’s intentions in capturing these remarkable bodies, his images inevitably provoke visceral yet complicated responses.
Tara Mateik, meanwhile, revisits Billie Jean King’s 1970s campaign seeking equal pay and equal recognition for women tennis players. For “Putting the Balls Away,” Mateik reenacts the fiery (albeit stage-y) 1973 Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes,” in which King trounced the older, swaggering male tennis star before record-breaking TV audiences. In the piece, the artist appears to play against a projected video simulacrum of his opponent; video of the entire reenacted match is screened in the gallery on a small JVC videosphere, a retro-futuristic monitor resembling a space helmet. The early ‘70s sci-fi monitor; the surreal reenactment; and the original event itself show how the revolutionary, forward-looking spirit of that moment now seems distant and strange—suggesting that today’s rabble-rousers might one day make current ideas about gender roles look equally quaint.
Holly Bass, "NWBA #1," 2012
While Mateik borrows a set of widely disseminated sports images from our past, artists Holly Bass and Sarada Conaway deal with the ways in which young women are consuming images of sports spectacle right now. For her most recent suite of “Bootyballs” photos, Bass mimics advertising posters one might find in a college dorm room. The artist herself wears a basketball uniform, in a classic Air Jordan pose, appearing to be in mid-flight, mid-dunk…except that the artist wears a prosthetic booty: Two basketballs are strapped to her derriere, and rather than dunking, it appears that she might in fact be the object to be dunked. While these pictures may in part seem to offer a sly nod to Hank Willis Thomas’s images of black men playing basketball amidst signs of slavery—nooses, shackles, branded skin—Bass here refers to the historical objectification of women generally; the treatment of black women in hip hop videos specifically; and the tangle of stereotypes and desires that attach to images of black women engaging in competitive sport.
Conaway’s images, meanwhile, might at first seem to be totally unrelated to athletics. A group of young teenage girls appears in two photographs, in two entirely different modes of dress. Though there is nothing in the images to indicate it, these girls play on a soccer team together, and the photographer has encouraged them to give one another makeovers. Subsequent individual portraits show young women trying on various identities: From teenage vixen, to goth princess, to androgynous retro-styled tomboy. Their status as teammates apparently gives them all the requisite trust to play dress-up together; each girl’s identity as an athlete appears to be merely one constructed role among many others.
Nancy Floyd, "Abby Fong," 2008
Of course, not all women’s sport happens in the full bright light of mass reproduction and consumer culture—some remains a more marginal, private source of camaraderie and self-discipline. Nancy Floyd’s images of Olympic rifle and pistol shooting capture not bodies in states of extreme exertion, but in the completely relaxed moment of natural respiratory pause necessary for precision marksmanship. Images of women wielding guns certainly sounds like a provocative idea—except that these women are still, withdrawn, quietly in pursuit of moments of slowed heart rate and total self-possession.
Cory Oberndorfer portrays the far more sociable world of roller derby culture, which has changed radically as the artist has been documenting it. The current roller derby revival began a decade or so ago with a largely DIY, homespun spirit, as a countercultural movement of self-organized amateur women’s leagues. Oberndorfer responded to this by making graphic pop-esque images of roller girls as slick, larger-than-life, seemingly mass-produced icons—an ironic transposition. Yet as the number of leagues has grown from a hundred or so to over 1000 worldwide, and as movies like 2009’s “Whip It” have glamorized these leagues, roller derby culture has become increasingly professionalized and homogenized. Oberndorfer’s murals now seem to have an ambivalent character as the aesthetic transformations within them seem to describe an ongoing change within the sport itself.
Some artists in the show use the presence of women in sports to comment on the behavior of men. Jenny Drumgoole’s wild, disturbing “Wingbowl” video reveals the palpable disgust and hostility that male audiences show Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, a 98 pound Korean-born American competitive eater who regularly defeats men three or more times her size. Crowds of male sports fans in athletic jerseys shower women at the Wingbowl XIII eating competition with catcalls and obscenities—and drive Thomas to flee a parade float as they violently pelt her with trash and beer cans. Drumgoole inserts herself into the proceedings as a “wingette,” a scantily-clad attendant who helps to feed Thomas a mountain of greasy wings.
Moira Lovell’s commentary is more subtle: She photographs each member of the Doncaster Rovers Belles women’s football team standing next to her male coach. Still in their loose-fitting training gear and clearly exhausted from the current practice session, these players do not present the false smiles or sex appeal that one might expect. Instead, these raw, slightly uncomfortable images hint at much about the relationships of young working class women to their older male coach—a patriarchal figure who ultimately calls the shots, deciding who plays on game day and how that game is played. A slideshow of these images is accompanied by recorded sound of the Belles’ coach shouting, cursing, and directing the team from the sidelines.
Dewey Nicks, "The Beauty of the Power Game," 2010
Here Lovell’s slightly grim slideshow is juxtaposed with Dewey Nicks’s ultra-glam depictions of contemporary women’s tennis stars like Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, and Ana Ivanovic. In a split-screen video projection, these women seem to be locked in a curious, slow-motion rally raked by dramatic light and accompanied by atmospheric new age-y music. The reality that these players are returning 130 mph shots in a 100+ degree studio is almost lost in the puffs of brilliantly colored chalk and gracefully floating bodies—suggesting perhaps our culture’s continued confusion over how to frame strong women’s bodies. The beauty of the power game and the toil of the working class footballers sit in the same room, but they are worlds apart.
Finally, two artists in this show use the trappings of sports for performance projects that mostly leave behind all of the media circuses, patriarchies, and dead weight of gender stereotypes. Kristina Bilonick’s “DC Cheer” project serves as an open, good-humored community-building and morale-boosting effort for the DC arts community. "DC Cheer" seems to follow in the footsteps of a number of other "radical cheerleading" performances, including the “Art School Cheerleaders” formed in the 1990s at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, or Judy Chicago’s “C**t Cheer” project in 1970-1. Such performances have usually relied on the ironic appropriation of the conventions of sport for leftist political action. Bilonick's project, though, seems designed to create genuine opportunities for non-competitive fellowship within a traditionally uber-competitive field: contemporary gallery culture. Bilonck’s installation at AAC features photos of previous rehearsals and performances; silkscreened wall graphics of actual “DC Cheer” cheers; and a live workshop led by Bilonick in which the audience can participate and actually become members of the squad.
Amber Hawk Swanson, "Online Comments," 2012
While Bilonick’s performance aims to create a social space in which to bring people together, Amber Hawk Swanson’s “Online Comments” seems intensely private and deeply personal—despite including every bit of anonymous negative feedback that the artist has ever received. While completing a grueling three-hour CrossFit workout, the artist will read out loud the comments posted in response to online media coverage of her previous work, including her controversial "Amber Doll Project," in which the artist commissioned the creation of a life-sized sex doll that resembled her exactly. "Online Comments" reflects Swanson's real-life engagement with CrossFit, a fitness movement with an unusually large online community characterized by cult-like devotion from its adherents. The piece also offers a direct expression of the element of physical endurance typically involved in performance art. Ultimately, “Online Comments” speaks more to the belief that personal fitness is itself a sort of activism—that all we have the power to change is ourselves.
In recent years there have been a number of efforts to undercut or dismantle the legacy of Title IX; there have also been many popular and scholarly writers advancing biological determinist arguments—of the “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” variety—regarding gender. The cultural terrain is continually threatening to shift under our feet. In the prologue to their invaluable 2003 book, “Built to Win,” Leslie Heywood and Shari Dworkin suggest that the acceptance of strong women is largely cyclical. “From Louise Brooks to Rosie the Riveter to Angela Bassett,” they write, “there is more public acceptance of a muscular ideal for women in or immediately following periods of prosperity like the ‘20s, ‘60s, or ‘90s, when definitions of traditional womanhood are being challenged.” Presumably, given the world’s current persistent economic meltdown, we should be in line for a cultural course correction at any moment. Strong women athletes and the artists who love them would be well advised to keep their eyes on the ball. —Jeffry Cudlin