In these new works, Wendy White expands her interest in the psychological connection between art and athletics by way of extreme fandom, corporate branding, and the emotional sacrifice of the professional athlete. The title, 12th Man, refers to the fan-the extra “player” who potentially helps determine the fate of the team-and also underscores the gender-specific terminology that pervades sports and society overall. The exhibition comprises large-scale paintings that fuse inkjet prints and acrylic painting with custom gold frames; hand-shaped, hand-painted rugs; and smaller canvases with gold mirror frames that drip down the wall like melting trophies. A new experience is elicited from iconic sports moments through White’s process of rebranding (often with her own personal brand preferences) and an expressive use of airbrush that simultaneously obscures, reveals and enhances surprising aspects of each figure. Many of the works in 12th Man deal exclusively with physical sacrifice on the playing field, and how the management of emotional triumphs and setbacks differs relative to gender. White’s female subjects are hereby depicted victoriously. Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year old pitcher from Philadelphia and the first girl to ever pitch a shutout in a Little League World Series, famously made boys cry with her 70 mile per hour fastball. Michele Akers, a.k.a. “The Warrior,” played on the US Women’s soccer team through crippling pain to win the coveted Golden Boot and earn a place in the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Brandi Chastain became an unlikely feminist icon when she ceremoniously ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning goal in the 1999 World Cup-revealing her sports bra in what would become an unforgettable, yet somehow scandalous, moment.
The male athletes in 12th Man are captured in less traditionally editorial poses. Global soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is caught weeping mid-game. Derek Jeter turns his back from the camera so as not to be seen as “emotional” during his final moments on the field before retirement this past season. American soccer player Jozy Altidore, a major hope for last summer’s World Cup, fell to the ground injured just 21 minutes into the first match-striking a pose eerily reminiscent of Manet’s Dead Toreador, painted in 1864. Awarding the women the main space in the exhibition, White relegates her male subjects to a smaller space-the man cave-where their exploits can be viewed in relative seclusion.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, White references the corporate sponsorship and branding that are ubiquitous in professional sports. Intertwined with a team’s persona, often by appearing directly on their jerseys, logos are an undeniable visual touchstone that is inseparable from a team’s overall fan experience. White’s inclusion of a “logo wall” echoes the grid of corporate symbols visible behind every televised press conference. Ironically, the detached world of corporate sponsorship is often enlivened through fans’ passionate brand loyalty, and iconic moments are remembered in part by their ties to specific brands. This is no more prevalent than when a longtime player tearfully retires or celebrates a victory in front of a monumental wall of Nike and McDonald’s logos.
At the core of White’s interest is the fact that, in many ways, sports are the last bastion of unmitigated experience. They are one of the few televised events that are still best when viewed in real time, cannot be binge-watched while skipping the commercials, and, despite the highlight reel, cannot be distilled into solely a success narrative. Someone loses or is injured. Someone retires. Good guys don’t always win. Talent rises. In these works, White pits the moment of artistic creation against a moment of athletic expression in a way that lets us all participate in the glow.