Devin Troy Strother’s Space Jam takes on Race and Pop Culture by Jessica Lynne
With Space Jam, Strother continues his humorous observations on race, pop culture and the art world through the lens of basketball. The show draws its name from the 1996 film of the same title but you will find no trace of Bugs Bunny on Strother’s intergalactic courts.
His signature oversized, free standing aluminum sculptures are the first works one sees upon entering the gallery’s lobby. Strother has described these sculptures as an ode to classical Roman and Greek statues and much like their famed counterparts, Strother’s pieces praise the gods among us. At nine feet tall, the “Heyyyyyyyyy man i’m open i’m open” series depicts some of the The New York Knicks’ most famous ballers. There’s Patrick Ewing, (that 1990 Ewing), Anthony Mason (that 1990 Mason), and of course, John Starks (that 1990 Starks, you know that nigga light skin. )
Strother’s birch panel paintings extend the cultural motif with Michael Jordan as the central figure. The paintings also locate the artist in an artistic lineage that includes the likes of Kara Walker as much as it does Kelley Walker, a lineage that Strother himself seems to recognize and own. The 3 part “ I got a Kelley Walker all over my MJ’s” actively speaks to Walker’s Aquafresh and Crest Whitening Prints. Instead of toothpaste though, Strother’s Jordan prints (maybe he really could fly?) are embellished with acrylic and oil varnish.
In the gallery’s largest room, Strother recreates a basketball court complete with two black marble and brass hoops deftly titled This is what my BLACK Jesus Looks Like (NBA jamz). On the court are five black boxes named for other basketball players. Deflated basketballs cast in bronze are strewn throughout the room. Imposing but unimpressive.
Still, I stare at the black hoops and I am reminded that for many Black people in this country, basketball is a sort of messiah. I stare at those hoops and I also think of the ways in which, in this instance, a basketball court becomes one of the few safe spaces for Black people. And boy, did Jordan fly whenever he stepped onto the hardwood. Wasn’t it as if he was heading to another universe? Space is the place right? Haven’t we been saying that true liberation for Black people may only exists beyond earth? If Jordan could leap towards freedom night after night and grasp some semblance of personal security then surely all we needed to do was leap too.
And yet, by the same token, there is an opulence that characterizes basketball culture, particularly when one considers a league such as the NBA, that is so excessive it’s comical if not distressing. Indeed, it could be more appropriate here to consider the larger tension between
American Blackness and economic mobility. Black basketball players are some of the most visible markers of Black wealth in the land of soaring college debts, underemployment, unemployment and rising living costs - a wealth that materializes, talent notwithstanding, as a result of arbitrarily assigned value given to the realm of athletics. And so, when you got it, flaunt it right? Ain’t that why Jay and Ye went to Paris?
It is at the intersection of this dichotomy that I place Strother’s work. Space Jam, colorful, funny, and full of 90s nostalgia often approaches the formulaic. However, it’s evident that Strother is wildly aware of the complexes surrounding race, the sports industry and the trappings of American capitalist success. Satire is the method of engagement. If you look away too quickly, you’ll miss the punchline.
Space Jam is on view at Marlborough Chelsea until February 14, 2015
Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK