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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bottom of the ninth, and art is up

ALVA Gallery
54 State St., New London, (860) 437-8664
American Legacies: Who's on First
Ends Jan. 12, 2007.

Baseball is the one team sport worth following. Where football and basketball teams are at the mercy of the clock, baseball is unbound by the dictates of time. The flower of hope—the possibility of the stunning comeback—blooms until the moment of the final out. There is as much craft in hitting, fielding, pitching well as there is in many an art form.

The ALVA Gallery in New London has presented a Legacies show every holiday season since opening in 1999. Until last year these shows had been organized as multi-generational family legacies. In 2005, the gallery shifted to the broader concept of American legacies, focusing the invitational show on cultural phenomena relevant to America.

But this year that legacy also has a familial connection very dear to owner Alva Greenberg. The concept came to her as she stood on the Yankee Stadium field in July, representing her father—baseball legend and Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, one of the first Jews in the sport and still its biggest Jewish star ever—in a ceremony marking the issue of the "Slugger Series" first-class U.S. postage stamps. Why not an American Legacies show on baseball? Who's on First—the show title a reference to the classic Abbott and Costello comedy routine—is an invitational show that is a solid hit.

Hank Greenberg figures in two of the paintings by folk artist Malcah Zeldis. Her family moved to Detroit shortly after she was born in 1931. Her lively paintings, with their stark colors and naïve perspective, comment on the associations baseball has for her. In "My Brother and I," she depicts the two of them as children. While she clutches a Raggedy Ann doll, her brother wears a Tigers jersey and a Hank Greenberg baseball cap. Greenberg himself—a hero to Jews like Zeldis—is pictured in "Hank Greenberg." In the painting of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, a Cuban defector and former New York Yankee (now a Met, thank you very much), the pitcher is in the foreground. Behind him we see three Cuban soldiers and two desperate figures in a boat. Another painting is an homage to Jackie Robinson. Baseball is not merely a game in these paintings. It is part of the texture of everyday life and also central to the American story of immigration and assimilation.

Baseball's association with childhood is poignantly evoked in Gigi Liverant's "The Pick-up Game." Liverant's pastel on board work captures that summer memory feeling of playing baseball at twilight in a park. But the magical nature of those memories is accentuated by Liverant's joyful use of color. The field is crested with gold. The sky is a rich blue charged with zigzags of purple. The choice of twilight rather than sunny midday is telling, emphasizing the fleeting nature of youth.

They are children. And then they move on. Perhaps that explains the hint of melancholy that lingers over Ted Hendrickson's two black and white photographs. In one, torn netting surrounds a Little League batting cage. In the other, a spartan dugout is empty behind a chain-link fence. Devoid of restless kids, these scenes by Hendrickson seem to ache not just with the passing of summer, baseball's season, but with the evanescence of youth itself. (Or maybe it's just me: my only child started college this fall.)

But lest one surrender to that wistfulness, Hendrickson's photos hang right next to Gar Waterman's "The Slugger." Using found objects—primarily metal machine parts—Waterman has assembled a cyborg figure in the exaggerated stance of the (right-handed) home run hitter. Ass out. Left leg planted and straight. Right leg crooked at the knee. Torso leaning in to coil for a menacing swat. I've written about Waterman before. He has an uncanny ability to take materials like stone and metal and imbue them with fluid grace.

If Waterman's work personifies tense anticipation, Forrest R. Bailey's "Victory Celebration" taps the emotional chord of joy. In this oil painting, players leap upon each other in triumphant excitement, practically defining the term "exultation." If you are a fan of a team that has ever won a championship or pennant—or ever capped a comeback with a walk-off, two-out, two-strike grand slam when they are three runs down—this painting will bring back memories. For me, it immediately triggered associations with New York Mets reliever Jesse Orosco tossing his glove in the air after recording the last out of the 1986 World Series. The picture has an added dimension, though, one of brotherhood. The players celebrating are white, black and Asian.

Baseball and the question of race in America have long been entwined. This racial legacy is referenced in Stuart Paley's "Baseball" (acrylic and collage on wood). Using vintage photographs, tinting and ink, Paley imaginatively connects the past with the present. In the top left panel, Yankees star shortstop Derek Jeter is seen charging around the basepaths. The figure of what could be Jeter as a Little Leaguer leans into the panel with bat cocked on his shoulder. The panel to the right marks a pivotal moment for baseball: Jackie Robinson leaving the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers. With a bat on his shoulder and a duffel bag hanging off the barrel of the bat, Robinson is posed waving goodbye as he exits through a door with the Dodgers logo on it. In the foreground sits a somewhat forlorn-looking member of the Monarchs. Robinson's success in integrating the major leagues would also mark the demise of the Negro Leagues.

Famed Negro League star slugger Josh Gibson is in his catcher's crouch in Leslie Kuter's "Autobiographical Art History: Eakins Concert Singer, Queen Hatshepsut and Josh Gibson." Kuter makes what she calls her "soft paintings" with a hooked rug technique, pulling strands of torn wool through burlap. As indicated by the work's title, Gibson is flanked by an opera singer appropriated from a Thomas Eakins painting and the iconic image of the Egyptian queen. Stepping back from the piece, it looks almost mosaic in the coarse stippling of the colors.

Artist Beverly Floyd combined her obsession with birds and delight in architectural plans to come up with her whimsical contributions. Her five works all incorporate linoleum block prints, collage, beeswax and oil on panel. In each she has juxtaposed images of birds with the collaged diagram of a baseball stadium. For three of them, Floyd depicts the birds that provided the team names. Blue jays flank the image of the Toronto Skydome in "Players in the Sky." Collaged replicas of St. Louis' Busch Stadium encircle the crests of two cardinals in "Busch Players."

And then there are the boys playing with their baseball bats and balls. Jesse Good's "Safe at Home" is perhaps the opposite of a soft sculpture. Good has molded a pillow out of cement in such a way that it looks like the clean white baseball nestled in the center has made an impression in it. Barkley L. Hendricks' "Rumplestiltskin's Ball" also incorporates a pillow, albeit a lush real one. On top of it has set a baseball—painted with gold leaf, a la the color of Rapunzel's hair, and signed by the artist—in a Plexiglas cube. Hendricks' other offering is a punning political commentary. A big screw is twisted into the top of a baseball. The ball has been painted so the black areas look like oceans and the horsehide resembles continents. The cover of the ball is rent where the screw enters and also ripped on a line toward the bottom. Both tears ooze red; it looks like a bloodied world. The title riffs off the President's name and the term for the low minor leagues, where also-rans and never-weres languish: "Screwball Bush League Global Politics."

Finally, there is a series of exceptionally well-crafted carved baseball bats by Benjamin Blackburn. Blackburn, who worked on Wall Street at the time of the 9/11 attacks, began carving the bats as a personal form of healing. His day job was gone, at least temporarily. Some of his colleagues had died in the attacks. But in his sculpting of the bats, Blackburn found a connection to American mythology and hope. A personal favorite for me is "1955: In the Year of the Boar," which commemorates the only championship ever won by the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team beloved by my grandfather.

But, bringing this review back to its inspiration, there are three magnificent carved and lacquered bats memorializing Hank Greenberg. Among the imagery Blackburn includes is a baseball crossed by a lightning bolt (a tribute to Greenberg's prodigious power), the Star of David, Greenberg's image on Wheaties cereal boxes, the slugger following through on his iconic home run swing, Moses with the tablets bearing the 10 Commandments and a man in prayer at the Wailing Wall.

The show will be up until Jan. 12, 2007. Then it is going, going... Gone.


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