“Hoop Dreams: Basketball and Contemporary Art” has multiple objectives: It provides a forum for artists who interpret basketball in innovative works. It salutes basketball’s impact on the Syracuse community. And, it explores basketball courts as public spaces — the courts’ connection to neighborhoods and the sport’s social implications.
“Hoop Dreams” fills much of Gallery B at the Everson Museum of Art with Jason Middlebrook’s installation, “Respect the Call.” It covers a wall with 33 baskets and sets up a mini-court where museum visitors can shoot a free throw or a three-point shot.
The show embraces artworks that aren’t straight-up figurative. For example, Michael C. Thorpe’s “Hoop Dreams,” a fiber work, shows one play from an NBA game. Otis Thorpe, no relation to the artist, gets a shot rejected by Mark Eaton, a formidable shot blocker. The artist depicts the action but also plays with the backboard as a rectangular form, with colors, with portrayal of fans. They emerge as shadowy figures in the background.
In “We Are Family,” done with acrylic and spray paint on wood panel, David Huffman has created a densely layered work focusing on nets attached to basketball hoops. He depicts netting in various colors over and over again, filling a canvas.
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Nina Chanel Abney, in her relief print “Two Years and Counting,” works with the outline of a player and an abstract style. The player’s hands are covered with gloves, and he either flicks or catches a circular object marked with a large “X.” His head clearly isn’t intended to be realistic.
Alvin Armstrong’s acrylic, “I Got Next,” doesn’t include anyone playing ball. He’s portrayed a solitary figure whose face isn’t seen. There’s a sense of both physicality and identity. The work seems to pose a question: what do we know about a player seen dribbling or dunking?
Ashley Teamer, meanwhile, is inspired by basketball but moves to her own beat. In “Touch the Moon,” created with acrylic, flashe and latex paint over an inkjet print, viewers see a glimpse of a face plus a mix of colors and shapes. It’s an interesting piece, one of the best in the show.
The exhibit also commemorates ties between Syracuse and basketball. Middlebrook has designed mosaic-style basketballs referencing two champions: the 1955 NBA title won by the Syracuse Nationals and Syracuse University’s collegiate championship in 2003.
In addition, Teamer created a promotional card honoring Liverpool native Breanna Stewart. She’s been an all-American at Liverpool High and the University of Connecticut, a star for the USA team in the Olympics, and in pro basketball.
Elsewhere, the exhibition presents a collector’s item, ten Topps cards depicting players from the 1957 Syracuse Nationals team. This has implications beyond that season. One of the players, Earl Lloyd, was the first African-American to play in the NBA. Seven of the ten players coached either pro or college teams.
Beyond that, “Hoop Dreams” investigates basketball in a larger context. A video screen displays images of basketball courts from various cities — New York, Atlanta, Memphis, and Tokyo, Japan, among others. Each court was broken down until Project Backboard, a non-profit group, intervened.
The project, coordinated by Dan Peterson, does rehabilitation work and hires an artist to design a new court. The corps of 50 artist includes well known figures such as Faith Ringgold and Favianna Rodriguez, as well as a bunch of emerging artists.
Moreover, there’s a selection of over 100 digital laser prints portraying participants from Brooklyn’s Conrad McRae Youth League. It pays tribute to McRae, who played high-school basketball in New York and was a fine defender for Syracuse University in college. Tragically, he died from a heart attack at age 29.
Ari Marcopoulos took the photos, most of which depict individual players in profile instead on the court. The league provides competition for youth ranging from age six to high school.
The exhibition presents artworks dealing specifically with social issues. Hank Willis Thomas, in his work, concentrates on how history, identity and culture are framed.
At the Everson, he has a piece depicting a chain extending from sneakers to a basketball. The work seems to express a proposition: Basketball brings joy to millions and is ubiquitous in American society. Yet, it can’t overcome deep-seated racism or resolve a situation in which a staggering number of African American people, especially men, are jailed or involved in the criminal legal system.
Finally, the appearance of “Hoop Dreams” at the Everson offers a geographic fit.
The museum is across the street from the Onondaga County War Memorial where the Syracuse Nationals played many of their games. And the Everson is three blocks away from “Legendary Syracuse Firsts,” the gigantic mural on East Jefferson Street that portrays four figures from Syracuse basketball history: Lloyd and Stewart; Dolph Schayes, a major star for the Nationals; Manny Breland, the first African-American athlete to receive a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University.
“Hoop Dreams” is on display through May 21 at the Everson, 401 Harrison St. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, $1 for people who have an EBT card, free for museum members, children 12 and younger, persons with a military ID.
For more information, call 315-474-6064 or visit everson.org.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 through 2019. He continues to write about artists an exhibitions in the Syracuse area.
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