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Here's Why Contemporary Art Is Obsessed with Basketball

"Ball is life" for many of today's artists. Eric Yahnker, Victor Solomon, Bill McRight, and Mark Whalen give us their insights into why.
Eric Yahnker Space Jam, 2014, colored pencil on paper, 94 x 72 in. (239 x 183cm). Images courtesy the artist

Beyond white boys betting against Bron Bron, the connection between contemporary artists and the sport of basketball has become a visual art trend that's all but impossible to ignore. Popular iconography has always been present in the art, but basketball increasingly seems to be making appearances off the court and in the exhibitions and galleries of today. In order to learn more about the sports fad with the most ups, we talked to four established contemporary artists who each reference the game in their own works.

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Eric Yahnker, King's Court, 2016. Colored pencil on paper, 76 x 68 in

Like many cities, Los Angeles has held its own as a strong geographic location for sports, and also for art. Based in LA, Eric Yahnker speaks of his attraction to the game as such: “I think contemporary art gravitates to hoops because it has all the grace, beauty, sensuality, theatrics, and physicality of a world class ballet. It’s an art form unto itself.”

“There’s an obvious innate attraction to long, lean humans maximizing their physical potential on a nightly basis," he explains. "Also, the game is incredibly fast-paced, so it’s rarely boring, and although various systems can have tons of complexity, it's fairly easy to comprehend—1.) put the ball in the damn hole 2.) stop the other guy from putting the ball in the damn hole 3.) repeat.”

Yahnker recalls, “I was lucky enough to grow up in LA watching the Showtime Lakers of the 80’s. I also played competitively throughout my childhood and into high school. I attended basketball camps and practiced incessantly. At various times of my life, basketball has been a premiere obsession. I guess you could say that conceptually using the game and its icons as metaphor in some of my work is as natural a gesture as breathing.”


Victor Solomon, Lemme Give You a Checklist. Stained glass ,gold-plated steel, Swarovski crystal, 44”x40”, 2016. Images courtesy the artist

On the sculpture side, Victor Solomon is known for his delicate stained glass backboards, which present an interesting spin of the sport. Solomon has recently been expanding his practice within the sport, beginning with his appropriately titled Literally Balling series. Solomon tells The Creators Project, “I think basketball is just better than it has ever been, talent-wise, exposure-wise. It’s fun to watch: there’s discipline, pace, finesse and visible stars with personality and relatable physiques. I think basketball used to be this ironic vessel for artists parlaying the jocks vs. whatever narrative, but as basketball becomes part of the zeitgeist, it provides a set of common symbols to adopt.”


Victor Solomon, How Can I Not. Stained glass, gold-plated steel, Swarovski crystal, 44”x40”, 2015

Solomon continues, “Basketball has a universality because it’s class-proof. I grew up in Boston in the midst of the Bird era, so basketball has always been part of my life. For me, basketball provides this perfect compound of using its symbols and mores to explore class and the irony of luxury while at the same time celebrating the subculture that’s given me agency to do so.”


Literally Balling opening at Joseph Gross Gallery, February 2016

Artist Bill McRight works with the basketball theme in his fine art photograph. “I've definitely seen a lot of artists using basketball as a theme. It's not just contemporary art,” McRight explains. “I think it extends beyond contemporary art. I think this is a cultural phenomenon. Is it art imitating life or life imitating art? Who cares. Basketball is hot across the board… I think that this is an easy topic to approach for a lot of people. You can use the story of a great player, a lousy player or a player's fall from greatness.”


Bill McRight, environmental photograph. Image courtesy the artist


Bill McRight, environmental photograph

With his iconic, intricate paintings of characters and narratives, Australian, Los Angeles-based artist Mark Whalen expresses his undying affinity for the sport in his work: “I love the game. Basketball in the 90’s had so much flare and hype to it, and I think a lot of artists now seem to be having fun using it as a powerful icon in their work. The basketball itself is a dominating object,” he tells us.

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Mark Whalen, UNTITLED. Acrylic, ink and gouache on board with resin. Images courtesy the artist

“The NBA has always been amazing," he explains. "I think the game itself has elevated in the last three years and is now more popular than ever. A lot of new players are in it, recreating what the great legends of the 90s achieved. It’s always been there and always been popular, but the game and the skill has changed to a whole new level.”

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Mark Whalen ‘UNTITLED’ Acrylic, ink and gouache on board with resin

Whalen tells The Creators Project, “I’ve been watching basketball since I was a young kid. I also used to play for a very long time, so for me, I’ve had a lifelong obsession for the game. I’m just as passionate about basketball as I am for the arts.” So, whether it's a personal history, a visual inspiration, or a revived appreciation for the sport, as long as the game is good, it seems, basketball art is here to stay.

Victor Solomon’s first solo show in LA, Literally Balling, opens at Soze Gallery, September 8th, 2016.


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