I Like Winners: Self & Sporthood

These trophy-loving portraits by Lucas Michael are part of the <i>I Like Winners: Sport and Selfhood</i> exhibit.

These trophy-loving portraits by Lucas Michael are part of the I Like Winners: Sport and Selfhood exhibit.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

To those who have never contemplated the relationship between art and sport, the concept of the two worlds meeting might conjure an image of a framed photo of Joe Montana releasing a long bomb. Or consider the less commercial, more organic example of the sketch of the ice skater or baseball player you drew on the paper-bag cover of your fourth-grade social studies book. You may have never given these works a second thought, but they endure for complex reasons. While that cheesy Montana action shot and that castoff graphite rendering aren’t exactly on art’s cutting edge, there are artists scattered around the nation unearthing their deeper meaning. For the sports fan and the art nerd—and especially for that lucky soul who is both—the University of Nevada’s Sheppard Gallery has assembled a triumphant confluence of these virtuosos in its new show, I Like Winners: Sport & Selfhood.

According to one artist participating in the panel discussion at the show’s opening, the perceived gulf between art and sport is personified by jocks sitting on one side of the high school cafeteria while artists congregate on the other. But as this group of artists proves—and as you can see for yourself in the eclectic exhibit—it doesn’t have to be like that. Most of the 20-odd featured artists have personally delved into competitive sports, and all bring a unique perspective to the playing field. Some explore the boundary between spectator and athlete, some examine the ritualistic significance of sporting events, and some use their media to lay claim to something they never mastered.

Maybe the most accessible piece is by Brooklyn-based artist Caitlin Parker. Parker sees her experience as a teenage girl learning to box among adult males as a parallel to her difficult progress in the art world. While sparring with men twice her size never led to literal glory, Parker now uses art as her avenue to sports greatness. In her video projection, “I Wish I Was Roy Jones Jr.,” Parker recreates the knockout round of a match between Jones and Vinnie Pazienza, casting herself as the champ. The piece leaves intact the original fight’s audio commentary and stages a punch-for-punch simulation of Jones’ victory. The result is moving and relevant to any sports fan. Who hasn’t clinched an NBA title with a driveway buzzer-beater, or won the World Series with a single improbable swing of a wiffleball bat? Parker’s piece is part homage, part impossible dream, part vicarious celebration, and 100 percent awesome.

Other artists’ explorations range from the feeling of your favorite team losing to the deeper meaning of getting your ass handed to you by someone bigger, stronger and meaner. San Francisco-based artist and erstwhile jiu-jitsu champion Jennifer Locke is so fascinated by the concept of dominance that she mic-ed up her sports bra and grappled an intimidating, tattooed man, documenting her toil with a lone camera. The audience voyeuristically looks on her projection from above, hanging on every labored breath, every desperate profane syllable. The intimacy of the power relationship that unfolds is captivating and at times uncomfortable to behold.

As much as sports are about glory, the unifying theme of I Like Winners, if any, may be that of struggle. Athletes and artists alike are often remembered for their crowning achievements, but the majority of their working lives are grueling, painful, repetitive, and perhaps lonely in some fundamental way. I Like Winners is a worthy and thought-provoking testament to this truth. Just be sure to bring a friend, or you’ll have no one to high-five but yourself.