Shizu Saldamando takes on Serena Williams

Saldamando La Serena

Shizu Saldamando, La Serena (2015). Oil, mixed media on wood panel.

La Serena, a beautiful portrait of Serena Williams by Los Angeles artist Shizu Saldamano, is currently on view at New Image Art in Santa Monica, CA, as a part of the group exhibition “The Thrill of Victory The Agony of Defeat: Sports in Contemporary Art.” Curated by Patrick Martinez, this exhibition also features work by Martinez, Gregory Bojorquez, Hiro Kurata, Mark Mulroney, Andrew Schoultz, Vincent Valdez, and Mario Ybarra Jr. I recommend seeing the show: all of these artists make very interesting work.

Saldamando, the only woman artist in this group exhibition, is (I understand) the only artist to take on the female athlete as a subject (I haven’t seen the show yet). The marginalization of women’s sports, as I’ve argued elsewhere, mirrors the wildly disproportionate scale of men’s sports as the subject of media broadcast and attention.* This goes to some of the things that make Saldamando’s work particularly interesting.


First, Serena Williams is a kind-of exception to the rule I described above. She is one of very few athletes to transcend the awfulness of mass media’s active suppression of public awareness of women athletes. The attention of a racist and sexist media, however, has mixed effects for black women athletes. The Williams sisters have been very savvy (and circumspect) in their navigation of that world, which exalts them and then tears them apart. That lifting and crushing is, of course, how mass media attention works. But the media’s wheel of fortune turns on a racist and sexist axis. Many portraits of iconic black athletes take this up, directly or indirectly. Consider, for example Keith Piper‘s installation Transgressive Acts: A Saint Among Sinners/A Sinner Among Saints (1993-1994), a twinned portrait of Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson. They are honored, here, in the style of stained glass windows in a chapel, on whose pulpit is a copy of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.

In La Serena, Saldamando gives us a deliberately iconic image—the use of gold, for example, marks this work as hagiography. Serena is not just victorious, she is exalted. The portrait vibrates with the weird story of Serena Williams’s recent upset, however. This year, in the semi-finals of the US Open, a completely unspectacular player, Roberta Vinci, brought Williams’s supposedly inevitable Grand Slam triumph to a brutal stop. In advance of this tournament, the press was unrelenting in its presentation of Williams’s triumph as a certainty. This, of course, feeds the media economy which needs saints to burn at the stake.

La Serena’s gesture, at least for me, expresses an awareness of the athlete’s future struggle. La Serena’s composure — her calm, her strength, her power and defiance — might easily have been lifted from communist or labor movement works celebrating women workers (see below). It is, however, also a citation of the most famous sport spectacle of them all — Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest from the medal stands at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. This image belongs to a pool of images of defiance — portraits of resistance, defiance and protest.


In this photograph, one of most famous and powerful images in sports history, Smith and Carlos’s hands are raised straight up, and their heads are bowed.** In Saldamando’s portrait, Serena is looking forward, toward a future that she creates. She raises her fist, but she also flexes her muscles. The artist maximizes our access to her physical power, and the metaphysical meaning of that power. La Serena contributes to an archive of images celebrating women’s power — these images differently engage and resist the ideologies of race, sex and gender that circumscribe women’s access to her own body. Some images (Norman Rockwell’s, for example, pictured below) render the working woman’s muscular body into something folksy and hypermasculine; others feminize the woman flexing her muscles (making her muscles disappear) — how and why embodied strength appears in these images is complicated. Michelle Obama’s arms, Dyana Nyad’s (captured below in a portrait by Catherine Opie), Serena Williams’s — each appearance of a woman’s muscular strength reaches from the image into the world to shake things up.

Black women, in particular, find their bodies read through a vicious matrix that pathologizes any sign of power and defiance. Her blackness appears, within racist ideology, as a disruption of gender. This form of racism flourishes around the figures of women like the Williams sisters — by which I mean black women who are among the very best women athletes alive. Their success as athletes becomes a sign of their always-already failure as women. Thus the social media trash-heap is sprinkled with videos, blog-posts that argue that Serena Williams is, in fact, actually man [I refuse to link that racist/sexist garbage]. In that world, her arms are stolen by a frightening army of fascist lunatics who see them as evidence that she isn’t, really, even human.

Saldamando’s La Serena calmly turns that shit into gold.


*Most group exhibitions centered on sports don’t feature any works centered on women athletes. So kudos to Martinez for including Saldamando’s portraits of Serena Williams and Kristi Yamaguchi.

**Note: Peter Norman [left] was an ally in this gesture. He is wearing a pin supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights and willingly absorbed the controversy surrounding his participation this moment.

On Holly Holm Giving Us What We Need

Jeffrey Gibson, What We Want, What We Need (2014).

Jeffrey Gibson, What We Want, What We Need (2014).

Holly Holm picked Ronda Rousey apart. An undefeated fighter is there to be defeated. We root for the upset. We relish the agony, the dark thrill of watching the takedown of a champion. We need someone who can knock the stuffing out of the hype. That’s what we got. It’s what we wanted, and what we needed.

Art+Sport: On the Sonic and Material Properties of Bounce

This Sunday (Nov 8), Machine Project and Cabinet magazine team up to present two new episodes in the life of bounce from artist (and former professional squash player) Carlin Wing. Episodes in the Life of Bounce is hosted by Sabrina Chou’s experimental sporting exhibition, HR.

From 1pm to 4pm, artist Carlin Wing, assisted by Luke Fischbeck, will present Live Ball Orchestra, a workshop about the sonic and musical properties of bounce. Participants will use balls of all types to sound out the architectural space of Sabrina Chou’s exhibition at HRLA. (One can play tennis with the gallery — bouncing the ball of the wall and objects in the space.) Participants will explore the aural characteristics of bouncing objects, test the range of acoustic relationships between ball and surface, and experiment with building tonal and rhythmic arrangements. Some bounce audio will be recorded. Balls will be provided but participants are also encouraged to BYOBall.

Following the workshop at 5pm, the event moves to the bleachers for Episodes in the Life of Bounce, an illustrated talk by Carlin about rubber as the foundational material of modern sport. All cultures play games with balls, but the rubber ball has a special history. In their time, the Aztec and the Maya built entire cosmologies around rubber bounce, while in recent centuries sport-crazed Europeans and North Americans have tirelessly experimented with rubber’s uncanny properties in pursuit of “true bounce.”

Balls: Michelle Grabner’s Soccer Mom Art

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Last year, the artist Michelle Grabner was subjected to a tremendously sexist review of her work by the New York Times’s Ken Johnson. He ticked many of the boxes for “most ignorant things you can say about a woman artist’s work.” Is her work narrow because it references the domestic? Yes, he says! Is her work childish for her having children? Why yes! Is her work boring and meaningless, just like housework? God, yes! He makes zero reference to the feminist contexts through which one might read her work. He punctuated this now notorious review with the following two sentences.

Nothing in all this is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole. If the show were a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating, but it’s not.

So, in response, the feminist professor made a gingham soccer ball. You can buy one for yourself, perhaps you can kick it around with your kids. It’s actually less expensive than official tournament balls.

As Grabner well knows, the kind of things Johnson said about her work have been said for the past couple hundred years about women artists (e.g. Rosa Bonheur, Jane Austen) — esp. those who work from the textures of everyday life. In his review, Johnson faults Grabner for not providing a “sociological” angle to her practice — a ludicrous expectation, frankly, for Grabner’s work. (What is sociology in the context of contemporary art, really? What would make it feel sociological enough?) That kind of demand — that things feel “sociological” and REAL — is not made of masculinist artists like, say, Frank Stella. Stella makes big art from manly things like steel, and produces them in factory like conditions romancing an idea of Productive Labor. This manly work is made by a MAN and in a manly way — and that tidy lining up of masculine signifiers is enough to give it meaning and value.

Reproductive labor is always abject, even when it’s really beautiful — it’s very beauty becomes the signal of its worthlessness (the abjection of feminine/reproductive labor is explored by a wild range of artists — e.g. Mary Kelley, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Kara Walker, Faith Wilding). I have more to say about this, but other deadlines are pressing on me!

Some good articles responding to Grabner’s work and Johnson’s review:

Jillian Steinhauer, “On Ken Johnson and the Question of Sexism,” Hyperallergic

Mary Louise Schumacher, “Why Michelle Grabner warrants more scrutiny,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Zuzanna Janin: Fight (2001)

A short performance video, from Janin’s series of fight performances based on training with and fighting the heavyweight boxer Przemysław Saleta.

Boxing Painting

This is what happens when you google “Jackson Pollock” and “boxing.”

Mixed Results

IAAF Mixed Competition Rule 147

International Association of Athletic Federations rule 147, regarding mixed-gender competition:  Generally not OK. Especially not OK in a stadium. Basically, if I’m reading this correctly, this rule is meant to foreclose the possibility that anyone might accidentally think that men and women compete directly against each other. Because then the earth might open up and swallow the stadium whole.

CrossFit Performance

David Getsy writes about Amber Hawk Swanson’s work in “Queer Exercises: Amber Hawk Swanson’s performance of Self Realization” (in GLQ‘s fall 2013 issue, which I edited). I can’t get enough of this.

Franko B – Milk & Blood

UK-based artist Franko B’s most recent work—a contribution to a recent wave of compelling/challenging sports-related performance art.

If the boyfriend is told to stay home, maybe he should not be in the lede for a match report.

Carli tells man to stay home

I am trying to recall a story about a men’s team winning the World Cup, or any match, in such spectacular fashion that opens with an anecdote about the MVP telling their girlfriend to stay home. I’m happy to read this kind of thing in a feature, a profile of the player—but in what I understood to be a match report? For a World Cup Final?

This match report appeared in the Guardian; I was lured by the headline “Carli Lloyd shreds Japan.” But I couldn’t get past that intro! Otherwise, the author’s work on the tournament was OK; I just can’t understand that intro. It feels like it was cribbed from Gwen Oxenham’s feature story on Lloyd? (For a good match report, see Grant Wahl’s.)


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