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.

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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.

Boxing Painting

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

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.

The Last Minute

Godfried Donkor, SANTO MARADONNA vs SIX OPPONENTS, 2006

Godfried Donkor, SANTO MARADONNA vs SIX OPPONENTS, 2006

At the knock-out stage of the World Cup we march through 90-minute deserts, or we are teased with the possibility of another world only to have those hopes dashed by a victory which asserts the relentless stability of the order of things.

A match may take the form of a siege. Opponents wear each other down with a negative effort. Play feels slowed down or sluggish. As one gets deeper into a tournament the fear of losing overcomes the desire to win until, finally, the latter asserts itself in the form of a late substitution (Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, in the 91st minute, against the US) or cynical play (Netherland’s Arjen Robben, in the 94th, against Mexico). Did Argentina and Switzerland play a match? It was hard to tell.

The conservative smothers the creative. Is this why the stadium was nearly silent as Brazil sank into a quagmire of anxiety? For the host country, even fans are done in by this particular form of dread—the misery of the winner who is really a loser, the most spectacular loser of them all, afraid the world will suddenly discover this ugly truth. What do we do with the fact that Brazil advanced not on the back of its play, but by virtue of being the luckier party in a Russian roulette penalty shoot-out? Even the one point they scored during the match was negative: although attributed to Luiz, it was at least partially an own-goal, having been deflected by poor Jara (who would miss his penalty and thereby sacrifice Chile to the Order).

If we are lucky, we see action in the form of the save. A team strikes at the goalie, over and over again. This excites us but it also distracts us. After we relaxed into the delusion that Tim Howard’s goal line is a wall (perhaps because it is past the point at which the match should have ended)—a new player pops onto the field and shows us that all along his team was only toying with us. We—by which I mean not the players so much as the fans—were always cannon fodder. Our delusions, food for the television camera.

Mexican Gothic (it IS a curse!)

Mexican Gothic

In honor of today’s match—at once startling and completely predictable—I share Ángel Zárraga’s gorgeous 1927 portrait of Ramón Novarro as a futbolista. Novarro (who moved to Los Angeles early in his career) was one of the original Latin Lovers. He starred in Scaramouche (1923), Ben Hur (1925), and Mata Hari (1931). He played Juan Diego in La virgen que forjó una patria (1942), a film celebrating one of Mexico’s origin stories: the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Diego in 1531. Diego was beatified and canonized only recently; he is the first indigenous person in the Americas to be recognized by the Roman Catholic church as a saint. But I digress.

Ramón Novarro was gay, and he was murdered in Los Angeles by two (white) men on, of all things, October 30, 1968 – the day before Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations. The murder was a grisly, awful affair.

This brings us to today’s match. The ESPN broadcast opened with an awkward explanation of the “puto” situation. It was, perhaps, the first trigger warning issued in sports broadcast history.

Fans of El Tri shout “PUTO” every time the opponent kicks a dead ball (goal kicks, free kicks, etc.). After Mexico’s first match, a watchdog organization filed a complaint with FIFA regarding the use of the word by fans in the stands. FIFA, unable to use the word “homophobic” in a sentence, decided that the chant is “not considered insulting in this context.” Obviously it is insulting; the question is whether “puto” is homophobic. No one can defend the word itself as never homophobic. Juliana Jimenez Jamarillo (writing for Slate) explains:

Fans yell puto, which roughly means gay prostitute, at the opposing team’s goalkeeper as a tactic to distract him from his task, a common enough practice in all sports. In this case, the chant is a very specific, homophobic double-entendre, playing on the concept of letting someone “score a goal on you.” In Spanish, to score a goal is meter un gol. That translates literally as to put a goal in, so when a goalie fails at his job, he dejó que se la metieran, or allowed someone to stick it in. You see where this is going: The embarrassment of allowing a goal in your net is akin to being on the receiving end of anal sex—you know, like a gay guy. (Jamarillo, “What’s the Puto Problem?”)

There wasn’t much anyone could do, ESPN host Bob Ley explained. The feed isn’t controlled by ESPN, and who can control fans? (One might say FIFA—they bans drums and trumpets and changed Brazilian law so that alcohol—Budweiser!—might be sold in the stadium.)

Lest we shrug off a stadium of (mostly) men shouting “puto” as merely a jinx on the opponent, let us remember gay men who have been brutally murdered at the hands of other men. Maybe by inviting men into their homes, or maybe by simply walking down the street.

For a couple weeks, we have listened to tens of thousands of fans chanting a word that means gay, but also “fucked.” And we’ve had little good commentary about how that situation is fucked up. It isn’t new (I’ve heard “puto” at Chivas USA matches, for example), but that doesn’t make it OK. Behind that word are quite specific histories of violence, aimed at quite specific people.

Also not new—Mexico fans exiting, with their team, at exactly this point of the World Cup.

Were I in the stands supporting El Tri, I might choose a different word when taunting the enemy. Not only for how “puto” works in a homophobic lexicon, but for how well it predicts Mexico’s path through every international tournament. If understanding the word’s homophobic resonances does not work for fans, perhaps a vocabulary shift might be made in the name of superstition.

A More Perfect World

Daniel Lara’s An Imperfect Universe is a beautiful project. We pass by pick-up games and local league matches every day; small communities of futbolistas are a part of our lives and our sense of home. If you’ve observed these games or played in them, you know that the balls are often worn. They are worn because they are in constant use and carry the traces of their travel across packed dirt and cement. Lara exchanged old balls for new ones; he carefully dissassembled and then patched together the worn balls to make sculptures. Each is an appreciation of the local; lo-fi love for the game.

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Pregnant with Ball

 

Yrsa Roca Fannberg, Resurrection (watercolour on paper, 2009)

Joel Campbell’s goal celebration belongs to a genre – Yrsa Roca Fannberg is the only artist I know to have honored that genre in paint.

 

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