Beyond the occasional shady public funding for their stadiums and mega-museums, contemporary art carries nearly nothing in common with most professional sports. Sports have a complex set of rigid rules privileging merit and a fan culture that mimics elements of nationalism. Contemporary art thrives on ambiguity, an absence of meritocracy and a core belief in being the neutral, observant outsider with no allegiance to any nation state or simulation thereof.
While contemporary art embraces visual strategies of "letting the viewer decide" meaning, sports fans require concrete relationships in imagery. For sports fans, images carry specific and often complex meaning. The uniform a player is wearing might add an interesting color to a well-composed photograph but to a fan it could instantly signal every childhood aspiration. To the next viewer that uniform might signal a rival team in sports and bring out contempt no matter the beauty captured.
The aesthetics of baseball are communicated through some of the most saccharine renditions in all of sports, let alone visual culture. Enter photographer Tabitha Soren. Unlike perhaps every artist who has sought to capture the beauty and poetry surrounding the culture of baseball, she comes to her chosen subject from that distanced, neutral place artists occupy these days. In her solo show, Fantasy Life, at Kopeikin Gallery, she shares some of the results of a thirteen-year project following baseball players as their careers blossomed, and in most instances faded. She then documented these men years after the prospects of playing the major leagues were gone.
Soren is personally ambivalent about the sport - averse to the intricate narratives, regional passions and billion-dollar glitz attached to hitting a ball with a stick. But her photography of baseball delivers subtleties about the culture of the sport, and especially the men who play it, that would likely be overlooked by those millions of fans satisfied with the sublime sound of the crack of the bat and the intoxicating smell of the grass as the total of their aesthetic appreciation of the game.
The artist began by documenting the 2002 draft class of the Oakland Athletics. Fresh-faced, college-age young men, we want to believe that there is hope on every face here as the dream of turning pro has been realized. But even in the earliest pictures we see pensive, nervous faces. Baseball is a game of failure. A superstar with an on-base percentage of .400 failed to get on base in six out of ten attempts. Having already played the sport for all of their youth, these kids already know that the failure game is a grind.
After being drafted, most players spend years in the minor leagues. Oft-documented as a torturous route, Soren's sojourn over the years with these men is absent many tropes that seem inescapable from the narrative of players struggling to be "the best they can be". One photo, Record Heat, of a minor league park shows a back stadium concourse. Dark and desolate, a child plays in the mist of an overhead sprinkler while another squats near its puddle. Passersby walk alone in a utilitarian outdoor hallway. Off in the distance we see one post with a bank of stadium lights pointing the other way, to an unseen baseball field. Like the dreams of so many of these players, that floodlit field is out there, barely visible amidst dreary everyday suffering. A little like the American dream these days.
In Rain Delay, the stadium's bank of lights is also a metaphor - the light source for an otherwise blurry minimal shot of night darkness. It might be a game of failure but here is a metaphor for hope -there in the darkness of waiting for circumstance to pass for the game to resume, there is the light. Major League Tobacco Bubblegum, a large shot of the floor of the dugout reveals discarded gum, wrappers and the spit stains of chewing tobacco - as far from airbrushed baseball card portraits as it gets and yet more integral to the daily experience of the lives these men lead than the glamour surrounding their quest for fame and fortune.
There is much more in the exhibit - now in their mid-30s, the players have moved on. Looking down the row of more than a dozen portraits, Soren recounted to me that Nick Swisher might be the most famous, has made the most money and had the most success. He has also had two knee surgeries that he will be living with for the rest of his life. Jeremy Brown was a first-round draft pick who played for six seasons in the minor leagues before retiring. He is a coal miner now. The dirt and sweat on his forehead in Soren's photographs evinces labor that comes from doing more than playing a game. Other men photographed then are now coaches or have other jobs in baseball. One hilarious photo is of a child's drawing with text about his baseball coach teaching him to spit.
The exhibit is rounded out by a bulletin board documenting the project with memorabilia players have given the artist and many candid shots. The players she has gotten to know have also given her bone chips and fragments removed from various operations. Displayed in a vitrine on black velvet they look like swirling star fields assembling into galaxies - but they are relics of the sacrifices these men make in the quest for glory. Hired specifically for the capabilities possessed in their bodies, they actually lose fragments of those bodies trying to maintain their superior skills.
By being ignorant of much of baseball, Soren delivers the national past time with fresh eyes. From the beaten minor league parks to the postgame fireworks seen from beyond the trees outside the stadium, we see fresh takes on a well-traversed subject. There is more that goes into preparing for the roar of the crowd than fans ever see. With Soren we see the journey of some of those for whom that roar will always be but a dream.
The exhibit runs through June 6, 2015 at KOPEIKIN GALLERY, 2766 S. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90034