March Madness, installation view (all images courtesy of Fort Gansevoort and by Thelma Garcia unless noted)

The title of the March Madness exhibition at Fort Gansevoort, a second iteration of the show first mounted last year at the same gallery, is a play on the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament started in 1939, which now consists of 68 teams from the Division 1 that play each other in a series of single-elimination games to get to the national championship. I follow basketball, but the difficulty I had with making my way through this show is that the theme of athletic competition via organized sports seems overemphasized. The conceit is so strong, and my suspicion put on high alert by such categorical arrangement of a show containing several artists, I ended up spending a lot of my viewing time wondering whether this or that piece properly fit.

Alison Saar, “Black Lightening” (2012), glass, shoestrings, found mop and bucket, water, 58 x 24 x 24 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

As much as I appreciate Betye Saar’s “The Game of Chance” (2016), a small whitewashed birdcage containing a clock and a fake bird, it doesn’t seem to belong to the exhibition. But the work of her daughter Alison Saar is, for me, one of the best in the show. “Black Lightening” (2012) consists of a pink-tinged mop, a four-legged stool, and a bucket of water that’s slowly emptying reddish water upward into a pair of glass gloves. The piece strongly evokes the boxing ring and the blood that’s always being spilled there. The competition is an exchange of fluids — blood for water, water for sweat — with the cycle continuing until the gloves are too heavy to carry on fighting.

My favorite piece in the exhibition is Pamela Council’s “Flo Jo World Record Nails” (2012), a rising wave of colorful acrylic fingernails placed on stanchions to form a ramp. I remember watching Florence Griffith Joyner with her ridiculously long iridescent nails running faster than anyone else on her track, and there is some of that triumph in Council’s piece. Another standout is Catherine Opie’s “Tyler S.” (2008), a photograph that captures a football player so young that you get the sense he is playing the game for reasons that are not yet clear to him, pure naiveté obvious on his pubescent face. Zoe Buckman’s work, which I have written about before in praise of its poetic power, is also here, but in this context it feels like the curators only gave her room to express a sentence when what she has to say requires at least a paragraph. So her pieces from 2016, a framed quilt (“This Side Down”) and an installation of painted mouth guards (“Pink Pedigo”), don’t convey enough information for the viewer to gain purchase with the work.

Pamela Council “Flo Jo World Record Nails” (2012), 2,000 acrylic fingernails, nail polish, rhinestones, metal, wood, 60 x 40 x 22 inches (photo courtesy the artist)

March Madness, installation view

Jean Shin “Altered Trophies (Sets 4, 5, 7, 8)” (2009) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Although the theme is a bit overdetermined, the exhibition is worth visiting because the work cleverly presents us with the appurtenances of sports: the equipment, trophies, and objects that adorn athletic bodies. March Madness makes competitive endeavors about more than just winning and losing — that ever-present gutter into which most sports announcers and analysts make all the sweat, tears, spit, and blood spent on the court or field disappear. This exhibition makes apparent the absurdity of the personas we take on once we suit up — not so much to play with others as to prove to ourselves that we can do it at all.

March Madness continues at Fort Gansevoort (5 Ninth Avenue, Meatpacking District) until May 7.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...