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Between Black excellence and fetishization lie the concerns of Alvin Armstrong’s exhibition To Give and Take at Anna Zorina Gallery. The exhibition is a meditation on the precarious position of Black athletes in America. Armstrong fills the expansive canvases with emotive Black people. Some action shots show characters in mid-stride dribbles or jumps, while others zoom in on the body, which move context beyond the picture plane. Armstrong’s clipped scenes beckon uncertainty, inspiring viewers to develop our own narratives for the action. While the figure in “I Got Next” (2021), for instance, seems to be playing basketball, the basketball itself is not seen. If he isn’t dribbling, what is he doing?
Armstrong’s minimal tableaus beguile viewers. In the diptypch “As Fast As You Can” (2021), the green landscape behind the figure suggest he’s running cross country. There’s no number, team, or corporate sponsor on the runner’s sparsely styled tank top. His body, caught in mid-pump, looks lean but muscular, typical of a distance runner’s build. Eyes closed, mouth open, drawing a deep breath, he appears exhausted in the left canvas but pushes forward. In the painting on the right, the agonized breathing is gone. Something has shifted between the first and second images that the viewer isn’t privy to: a thought, or perhaps his motivation. He may be running toward a finish line, or running away from something threatening him harm.
Curated by Stephanie Baptist in collaboration with project space Medium Tings, Armstrong’s stunning solo exhibition, his second, probes specators’ relationships to Black bodies in motion. Like his first exhibition with Medium Tings, This Place Looks Different, the artist combines historical, everyday, and imaginative imagery, rendered in bold colors, to explore the lives of Black people in America. A self-taught painter, his career as an artist follows a military career; he also works as an acupuncturist with a background in Oriental Medicine, according to an interview by Something Curated.
The relationship between American Black culture, sports, and racial justice is well documented in the United States. From Jackie Robinson desegregating Major League Baseball to Muhammad Ali refusing the Vietnam War draft, to Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the national anthem, sports continues to be a forum in which African Americans fight for equality, as well as a platform for broader social and racial justice work. However, just as Black athletes have pulled society toward equality, white fans have often pushed back, demanding, directly or indirectly, that Black athletes just shut up and play.
Armstrong explores this push and pull in another diptych,“Hammer in a Sea of Hate” (2021), which depicts legendary baseball player Hank Aaron (nicknamed “Hammer” or “Hammerin’ Hank”). The two panels divide a single image of Aaron at bat, separating the arms gripping the bat from the player’s face, which is focused on a point beyond our view. His torso, poised to swing, is also split. With his upper lip curled and eyes intently focused, he could be waiting for the pitcher or reacting to an all-white crowd shouting various epithets — a reality he faced as he came close to surpassing Babe Ruth’s home-run record.
Baptist smartly curates the show to start with scenes that are visibly connected to track and field (“Everything Comes to an End” or “First Sigh, Catch Fright,”) and basketball (“As A Whole” or “I Got Next”) and transition into more ambiguous imagery.
A series of six separate paintings show dark-skinned black men in white, loose-fitting t-shirts and variously colored pants, their limbs splayed, against a background of solid blue or mauve or mustard; three more works show men from the chest up only. In all of these works, clear indications or sports are absent. Four of the paintings (“I Don’t Want to Wake You,” 2020; “Gone Before You Wake Up,” 2020; “To Change Now,” 2021; and “Left You Up, Waiting,” 2021) show the men with their arms raised. Is this a reference to someone shouting during a game — as in “Hands up, pass the ball!” — or the more dire “Hands up, don’t shoot”? Armstrong alludes to the ways signifiers shift in meaning depending on the context. These are not only Black athletes but also Black people experiencing the consequences of their Black-skinned bodies.
Spectator, fan, or foe — each view of the Black subject comes with baggage. Armstrong’s works, approachable yet enigmatic, invite viewers to confront and challenge the gaze that fetishizes and objectifies Black athletes. His paintings explore the power and nerve that underlies the athletes’ gestures, on and off the field of play. In doing so, he poses a crucial question for his audience: To whom do these Black bodies belong? Who lays claim to their movements, their stories, and their lives?
Alvin Armstrong’s To Give and Take continues through June 19 at the Anna Zorina Gallery (532 West 24th Street, New York City).