by Robert Mahoney
March 29, 2016
Little known fact, when Pop Art was breaking out all over 60 years ago, some artists explored the silhouette as a device, and in the exploration of the negative space of silhouettes, other artists took up the nexus between art and sport. In work I saw a few years back, the veteran Pattern Painter Kendall Shaw, for example, wanting some body response in abstraction, and interested in energizing the space between figure and ground, did a number of silhouette sports-oriented works in the very early 1960s that remain pretty exciting pieces (but he stopped making them because people thought he was just illustrating sport). Fast forward to 1990, and of course Matthew Barney’s full-on installational art was born in his colonization of the space between sport and art. The salient element here is the body of the artist, informed by the body of the athlete, and then addressing, in seeking response to art, the body of the viewer, who might be both arty and athletic. It’s a pretty vibrant nexus, rarely explored in it. That’s why it was a surprise pleasure to see the issue addressed in a small one-person show by Erin Foley at the Moving Gallery/aka Garden of the Zodiac Gallery in Omaha's Old Market this past month.
The particular nexus explored by Foley is that between art and the sport of tennis, which would entail, if you set up a metaphoric mesh, the canvas and the court, the canvas and the net, the canvas and the racket, and the canvas and the fence around the court, and then the brush and the racket, the stroke and the serve, the artist’s body and the athlete’s body (the common factor being muscle memory as opposed to intentional action), then, too, even, the art viewer’s eye and the sport viewer’s eye (the volleying eye of the tennis watcher a familiar trope) among other possibilities.
In two very accomplished, quite clever paintings up front, Foley has painted sharp (likely taped) lines imitating the foul lines of your average tennis court on a green painted surface that has a velvet lushness to it (I couldn’t resist a back of a knuckle touch). The fun thing is that the grid pattern looks different straight on, then from the left and the right, and that’s because it is an anamorph. The anamorph was a favorite device of the late Renaissance and Baroque artists to tilt the art as it were to particular spots of points of view to unveil secret meanings or enhance direct address to the gaze in the paintings. Thus, in some ways, the Sistine Ceiling only makes sense if you stand in such and such a spot, and gaze at it from there; and the strange form floating in the foreground of Holbein’s The Ambassadors only reveals itself as a memento mori skull if you step way over to the right side. And here too, in the main painting by Foley, if you step far off to the right, Foley’s “court” seems to straighten up at you, and then if you step back out front, it tilts, and back and forth, resulting in a “subway eyes” (boggle) effect. It’s very clever, a nifty visual trick that adds greatly to the electricity of the painting, not the least of which because it tacitly compares the gaze of art to the gaze of sport. And she varies it, as in a second painting of the same set, another array of the foul lines, on another field of green, and a whole other series of visual challenges. This is very bright neoconceptual/perceptualist painting indeed.
In the back gallery is an odd sculpture, but really it stands as a trophy communicating the fact that the gaze required in the proceedings is one fixed on the “turning point.” Several tennis balls are skewered on the several prongs of a wooden standing grid of 8 crossarms (from top to bottom one ball right, two left, two right, one left, one right, bottom rung both right and left) (there is a small sketch of a mathematic sort on the left coming in the gallery, so I suspect, though it is said to be about accounting, some secret logic, but came away without explanation), the array having elements of cross, car aerial, coat rack/halltree or just abstract array. It reminded me of the fact that back in the day, for reasons which I never quite discerned, you often would see tennis balls fixed on exterior aerials on cars, likely protective in various ways. But here, the sculpture seems to act like a semaphore to tell you what to watch, or when to duck, as you peruse the second part of the show, which is six or so very sharp, very bright, black and white on grey abstractions, also with great, sharp energy.
The best of these is the large painting opposite the sculpture, where in addition to four zippering chevron accumulations cascading down the canvas, there is the inscription of a gashed, stretched A floating over it all. What it means, is by no means clear, but its sense of strength and speed is what not just jumps, but shoots out at you. Three smaller panels also have three bright zigzaggy (or ravelled) white stripes, lined in black, electrifying a grey space backdrop; the panels varying on the micro level in the zigzaggyness. The energy in the zigzag lines of these abstractions made me wonder if they were not also inspired in their path and energy expression by the speed of a served tennis ball, as trophied nearby. The fact that the pattern zips out at you, off the canvas, almost to make you stand back, also means that Foley has found a way to front abstraction out from the surface of the canvas, as it encounters the body of the viewer, which is a very busy site in current art. Whether or not my reading is too literal, it remains that here too, inspired by a sports-art nexus, Foley had managed to unleash a whole set of very energetic, dynamic, 21st-century abstractions.