Games for Girls

Courtesy of HPAC

By Anna Fixsen

“You play like a girl!” We have all heard it–not only the dreaded insult of a snot-nosed kid at a sandlot baseball game, but also the mantra of an entire social paradigm. The realm of sports has long been housed in the man-cave, shrouded by machismo and Muscle Milk. If it’s not a traditionally feminine sport like figure skating, or a booty-baring exercise like beach volleyball, the public is disinterested. Betsy Odom seeks to probe this reality, blurring the lines between sex and sport in “Sis Boom Bah.” The exhibit, now on display at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), explores themes of gender equality and homosexuality in athletics through humor, kitsch, and kink.

A large image of a flexing woman greets the viewer at the exhibit’s entrance. The figure has a stoic face as she poses à la Arnold Schwarzenegger, displaying an impressive pair of biceps and a chiseled pack of abdominals. Bands of green duct tape conceal her genitalia, inviting the viewer to speculate. The image is called “Un-titled (for Caster),” an homage to the 2009 controversy over South African runner Caster Semenya’s exclusion from athletic competition due to questions about her sex. Caster’s image sets the tone for the entire exhibition: that of androgyny, hybridity, and physical empowerment. Nearby, vintage-looking athletic pendants read “Go Bitches.”

The 20 or so sculptures on display are made up of sports equipment and found objects. The items, ranging from a tennis racket to a field hockey stick to a referee whistle, are transformed into the effeminate. Mutilated and emasculated, these mundane symbols of athleticism are elevated into objects of fine art and intellectual scrutiny. There is a blasphemous air of humor to the exhibit–Odom is having her own personal field day.

Odom’s materials are just as diverse as the sporting equipment, pushing the notion of craft beyond your granny’s knitting. A hand-stitched karate headpiece is made from hot pink leather. Underwear waistbands form the webbing of a sagging lawn chair. Glittery automobile paint shellacs surfaces. Striped tube socks comprise the border of a leather rug, while a neatly folded towel is made completely out of a block of cork.  The effect is something of a gay pride parade in a locker room.

These materials embody the contrast between masculine and feminine. HPAC administration intern Lillian Pope comments: “The objects are beautiful in spite of their actual use; they are beautiful because of the materials. It is a very tactile experience.” Tooled leather, an aggressive, corporal material lies along side silky-smooth ribbon and lace. “Bulldog 7,” a birch wood knee brace with an attractive dark cherry varnish sports a thin strip of white lace. A wooden pair of football shoulder pads entitled “Bulldog 30” blooms with silk ribbon and straps, sporting eloquent floral patterns. The underside is lined with intricately quilted baby-blue fabric.

The exhibit engenders two conflicting sentiments–an honest enthusiasm for the love of the game and the insecurities of an entire gender sitting on the sidelines. Pope claims, “Many of the visitors of the space have described it as empowering.” Yet, the effect of seeing discarded, deconstructed athletic equipment is simultaneously unsettling.  Sport, says the artist, serves “as a symbol of desire and longing, both for human connection and for the fantasy of physical greatness.” In the end, these conflicting emotions are all a part of the game plan.

Odom will be coming to the Hyde Park Art Center for an artist’s talk May 22. Starting May 6, an exhibition at Threewalls gallery will be running concurrently with  “Sis Boom Bah.”

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through June 19. Free. (773)324-5520.