Artists Christopher Gideon and Elissa Goldstone live and work miles apart. Yet, they love the same game. The two sat down to discuss baseball and its role within the stadium of contemporary art.
At the risk of blaspheming, I’m going to go out on a limb here: I have always been generally mystified by baseball. Perhaps I have been too impatient with its pace or, more probably, too uncoordinated to actually play the game to really understand the value of it—to feel it in my very being. In middle school I was always that kid who selected the electronic bat, the one that, during whiffle-ball, would let out a satisfying crack mid-swing, despite the fact that nine times out of ten there would be no actual contact with the ball itself. That crack—the illusion of success, the physicality implied by the sound—always prompted a flutter in my stomach. Yet, I never delved any deeper in exploring what the flutter was all about, and never really connected with the cultural meaning of the sport. That is, until I attended my first baseball game. I was in Havana, Cuba. I was fifteen years old. The unique opportunity to witness a game that I had always understood via a strictly American lens, on the other side of the heavy veil of U.S.-Cuba embargo politic, was a siren song. The stadium was a veritable international summit; a diverse melting pot of nationalities and language, all in the same place, at the same time, to watch the same game. Initially doubtful about the purpose of my presence in the stadium, I quickly lost myself, whisked away by the energy of it all. The ritual of it. The signs and symbols, the hand gestures, the cheers, the distinctive smells. At one point, a fan got so worked up he rushed onto the field shirtless, screaming, seemingly having caught the spirit, driven by the love of the game. And there it was—that flutter again. I got it.
I wasn’t able to foster a deeper relationship to the game in the years that followed. That feeling, the flutter, it seemed to have dissipated. This is why, miles from any stadium, devoid of peanuts and Cracker Jack, I was startled by the return of the sensation, this time prompted by setting eyes on the respective works of artists Christopher Gideon and Elissa Goldstone. I encountered Goldstone’s work first, at Salomon Contemporary in the spring of 2011; Gideon’s I crossed paths with later that summer. Again—it clicked. And this time, the narrative behind the passion and value of the game was being related to me in my native tongue: contemporary art. Gideon and Goldstone’s translation of baseball-as-cultural-text is so adroitly precise that I, too, caught the spirit.
Goldstone is a New York native; Gideon hails from Detroit. The two have never met and encountered eachother’s work for the first time in this conversation about their unique relationships with America’s favorite pastime.
Legacy Russell Let’s start with the obvious question: why baseball?
Christopher Gideon To be honest, baseball kind of found me. Last year, I was in my studio waiting for some panels to dry and needed something else to do. At the time, all I had was my old baseball card collection sitting in a closet. I pulled it out, grabbed a blade, and went to town. What started as a minor detour has since taken on a complete life of its own. Now it’s one of my major focuses.
Elissa Goldstone Have you ever read any classic sports writing? The best is always about baseball (Roger Angell, Philip Roth, or John Updike). This is because baseball, more than any other sport, is nostalgia in motion. Even as it’s occurring in real-time, you’re already imagining the moment as a memory, and are contextualizing it as epic.
To be sure, most sports have this quality of memorializing, but baseball is designed to be viewed in the past-tense. It’s a long-term relationship, where the present moment or play is completely insignificant without the entire history of the game along side of it. And every play, be it awful or awe-inspiring, has a place in the books. So we buy treasures and proudly don jerseys and hats, and we keep signed bats and balls, all to keep us reliving the moment and, with it, a nostalgia for the game itself.
A baseball season is 162 games (not counting spring training and the post-season) and no matter how good your team is this year, or last year, or even for the past decade, you know, with absolute certainty, that winning cannot last. Heartbreak is inevitable. You cannot win every game. You can’t even come close. No team has ever won even seventy-five percent of their regular season games, and those that have come close are memorialized in the books and in the minds and paraphernalia of fans. It won’t last, but we remember—so it does.
I know this all sounds fatalistic, but it actually establishes a way to enjoy the minutia of the game. I spend time focusing on the details. The details are beautiful, and there so many. In my artwork, I try to focus on particulars that have a strong visual identity that stretch beyond baseball into American culture. Major League baseball has been played for 125-plus years; this game is ingrained. For example, everyone knows what a baseball looks like. . . . it’s classic and appealing: white leather with red stitching, symmetrical, and well-crafted . Of course, it exists to be thrown, or caught, or hit. But the ball recalls more than its usefulness. It’s an association to the game through a person, place, or time, and becomes a visual connector to memory.
LR What would you say differentiates the culture of baseball from that of, say, basketball?
CG Baseball’s been around forever. It’s a game played more like a chess match than a sport, but it’s the ritual and traditions that have propped it up for more than a century: The ceremonial first pitch, the ballpark food, the uniforms, the seventh inning stretch, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, oh, and don’t forget—baseball cards. The list goes on, though despite its charm, baseball is increasingly lost on today’s generation and their insatiable hunger for action.
Basketball, on the other hand, is a fast-paced and high-scoring game which seems to reflect more on the hurried mid-to-late twentieth century culture it was born out of.
On a side note, this question makes me laugh because I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a scaled down basketball court made of baseball cards on panel. Go figure!
EG I’m not a big basketball fan, though I’ll watch a few Knicks games a season, so I don’t feel qualified to draw distinctions. Right now, I’m loving Linsanity; its great to be Linsane. I love the story, even the ridiculous catch phrases. I’m hooked, but I think the appeal of Jeremy Lin is not rooted in basketball, specifically.
To me, what makes baseball stand out is the strength of its tradition and history. Baseball is deeply rooted in the habits and practices of this country; you can parallel the game with any significant moment in American history over the past 200 years and this means that the game relates to the personal narratives of so many Americans.
I will say that baseball seems to me to be more part of our past and less a part of contemporary life than basketball. Every aspect of baseball transports you back, since today’s game looks much like the first game: the bats are wood, the ball is stitched, the gloves are leather, and the field is a simple diamond-shape of dirt and grass.
LR Can you talk a bit about your creative process—as in, the act of making, the motions you go through, how you manipulate your different media? Would you say that your choice in materials and the methods you activate therein as you build out your works is particularly “nostalgic” (to use Elissa’s word)?
CG My process usually begins with a simple theme or idea formed while rifling through boxes and boxes of baseball cards for a different project. I am easily distracted by all the photos, borders, fonts, colored patterns, you name it. There’s so much design potential that I often find myself asking, What else can I harvest from these things? They’re truly gifts that keep on giving. For example, today I may cut out helmets from all the cards and do a helmet collage. Tomorrow, I can go back through the same cards and collect just mustaches. It’s an ongoing process of reincarnation and the cards get more Swiss-cheesy each time around. I think, when the collection is finally reduced to dust, I’ll know I’ve reached the limits of exploration.
Nostalgia is a huge part of what fuels my collage work. Every time I shuffle through a stack of cards, I’m twelve years old all over again, looking for that special something to pop out at me. Sometimes I think of the irony involved in dissecting them with a knife. It’s a weird and liberating experience considering that, as a kid, I worked so damn hard to preserve them.
EG For a while now, everything I make is either embroidered, hand-quilted, or machine sewn. I look for craft and stitching in everything; and it’s not difficult, we are surrounded by the stitched-together. And when I find something that’s iconic and has a universal appeal, I try to mimic it’s essential moments. For example: Ive been making these drawings inspired by the baseball ball, where I’ve tried to reduce the ball to the last moment when its still recognizable, which is this red cross-stitching. And then I play with this element, the color of the thread, the size of the stitch, the shape of the form. The effects can be remarkably evocative.
Making is totally central to my practice (or creative process, as you call it). It’s not just the act of making, but actually creating work that looks handmade. I think the handmade-ness is key. Everything I make could have been made one-or- two hundred years ago and so my work often appears frozen in time. As I started to consider more ubiquitous concepts such as baseball and quilting, I started to welcome and manipulate this frozen effect, to in a way play off of our nostalgia.
LR Elissa, you work using what in the past has been called craft or fiber processes and materials. As a woman producing these works do you find that there is a dichotomy between your gender and the acculturated masculinity of sports culture? Chris, there is an element of craft to your process as well; can you speak to the impact of these histories? Do they influence your creative process? Do you find them to be particularly gendered?
CG In some of my first explorations into baseball cards, I’d physically weave players’ bodies in and out of each other. Later, the weaving became more literal as I began cutting the cards down into strips, and with them began copying traditional basket weaving patterns. This proved to be very tedious since the baseball cards are quite fragile and working with them takes a soft, almost feminine touch in order to pull it off.
As the baseball cards undergo a transformation, I’d say they lose a bit of their machismo. There’s something disarming about two professional male athletes spooning, or some big slugger reconfigured into an elegant twill weave.
EG I’m interested in creating and pulling from images and ideas that have a universality to them rather then a specificity. And not just the zeitgeist, but also something that runs a bit deeper and connects to the broadest spectrum of people without being incendiary. This interest definitely derives from living in New York City my whole life, where I feel completely out of touch with what’s actually relevant to people. New York is so ideologically removed from the majority of the United States that I’ve become fascinated with what I can share with people outside of my comfort zone.
So, I chose these diverging pastimes—baseball and quilting, the masculine and feminine—to cover my bases (pardon the baseball expression). I’ve found that with these two themes I can communicate with anyone—from a 78-year-old woman in Louisiana, to a 5-year-old boy in Oregon, and everyone in between. Really. I think this is very powerful. Everyone has some experience with either quilting or baseball, if not directly, than through a friend or relative. I’ve never had the experience where I mentioned quilting and got a blank stare or suspicious look. But when I mention that I’m an artist. . . . its like I have to backtrack to prove I’m trustworthy or sane.
Out in the world—and by world I mean the United States—there’s a distrust of artists, like we are either tricksters or elitists. This distrust is remarkably similar to the way people view New Yorkers. And hey—neither is unfounded. It’s almost shockingly spot-on. So, I’m working on blurring the boarders between living in the United States and living in New York City and being an artist and being a sincere, sharing citizen.
So to get back to the masculine and feminine tropes of sport and craft or fiber art, yes, they are there. But I see them as mildly-political, gender representatives, rather then comments on the genders they represent.
LR Though each of your practices makes use of the visuality and language of baseball, would you say your work is baseball art? Or is there a goal beyond that you aim to access in your choice of content, materials, etc.? I know Elissa you mentioned literary influences in your noting the role memory and collective consciousness plays in your process, can you expand on this? And Chris? How would you categorize and contextualize your work, if at all, within a cultural landscape?
CG I’m a bit surprised by the number of people who approach me with suggestions to “Get in touch with this guy, because he’s a huge Yankees fan!” or, “You should do a giant mosaic Olde English D. Kid Rock would love it!” Lots of people misinterpret the medium and take it for face value which, I think, is missing the point. If anything, I want to push the work into the opposite direction from baseball. My most recent pieces are essentially void of any connection to the sport whatsoever.
EG The literary references are my personal affirmations on the power of the sport and its ability to cross cultures (both the traditionally high-end and low-end). These great writers use the game as a medium in much the same way that I do. Roger Angell is an incredible baseball writer because he makes you feel that the subject—baseball—is greater than the sum of its parts. His work connects you to an era and an idea that transcends both the reader’s reality and the specifics of the narrative. It’s emotive. It’s good art.
Angell’s talent is writing; mine is sewing. I read these pieces to affirm the importance of the game, to remind me that subject is worth investigation. Because, as Chris mentioned, it’s easy for people to see the work as art for baseball lovers as opposed to something more universal.
LR Do either of you play the sport?
CG I dabble in softball. A couple years ago, my friend asked me to sub in for his team which was short a few players. Little did I know they needed a pitcher too. Of course, the first game I played was against the best team in the league and I took a blistering line-drive off the ankle.
EG I’m an embarrassment to the game. I know all the right moves, in my head, but my body. . . . well, that’s why I stick to sewing. I do think of my studio practice as my sport, though.
That said, every year for my birthday I put together a softball game (Legacy, Chris, I hope you both will come this year: some weekend in June, date pending). It’s always a high-scoring messy adventure, and everyone has a great time: we’re outside, we’re throwing the ball around, and we’re running the bases—it’s great! And at the end of the game, every year, people say, “Hey this was so much fun, why don’t we do it more often?” And I think, HELL NO! I’m exhausted! I mean, between reserving a ball field with the City Parks Dept, arriving early at the field to clear out what ever nonsense was left over, organizing a group of people to come with mitts, balls, and bats, and then playing! I’m totally wiped. It’s too complicated, easier to turn on the radio and listen to the game. And then, a year rolls by and we are out running the bases again.
LR Elissa, can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Eva [LeWitt]? Where does zine culture come into the conversation? It seems to me that zines are incredibly nostalgic objects, but also important cultural documents. . . and incredibly democratic in their DIY faculties.
EG I collaborate with my dearest friend Eva LeWitt on the baseball zines. We are both artists and Mets fans and we saw the zines as a way to a) collaborate b) have fun. I’m not used to collaborating and I don’t want to speak too much for what Eva thinks about the zine, but I know for me they are a way to put objects out in the world that are outside of the art world, to actually participate in the culture that I borrow from in my own art practice (and that I love so much). Our zines are handmade, and each page is its own artwork, but the whole zine is a piece of memorabilia.
The zines allow us to engage others for free and through a visual language. It’s an incredible feeling to gift something and have its value lay not in dollars , but in its content. By having them be free (or low priced—twenty dollars—we do sell them at times) they are removed from an artistic dialogue. If we showed the original ‘zine artworks in a gallery, the content becomes secondary to the art. In a gallery setting, these works enter the dialogue of the art-space where they become more linked to a genre or movement—collaboration, collage—with the baseball being secondary. And that’s not our (or my, rather—I don’t want to speak for Eva) intention. Our intention is to visually express our participation in this baseball culture. We already participate—we follow, watch, listen, and attend. The zines just embody the participation visually. They memorialize the game the participation of two fans.
LR Chris, can you talk about your architectural background? Would you say there is an aspect of architecture and building in the production of your pieces? Blueprints? Floor plans? Is the language the same? The technical parallels? It’s something for me to think about that you would be able to enter, say, a stadium space, and dissect the different elements of the stadium as an edifice, and simultaneously be able to, within your studio space, perhaps apply some of that same understanding of material, scale, proportion to your works, on a micro level.
CG Though it’s technically classified as collage work, many of my pieces have a certain three-dimensional quality to them. Like a building, on some of my panels the cards are built up in layers, starting with a foundation, if you will. Often, the compositions are very simple or they’re geometrically-driven. With collage, it’s important for me to let the medium speak for itself without a ton of other distracting design elements going on. To be honest, this work enables a spontaneous approach and I don’t spend a whole lot of time planning them out like I do my paintings or illustrations, much less my architectural projects.
LR It seems your materials are very much so indoor and somewhat even domestic materials (fabric, thread, for Elissa; cards for Chris), so private objects to some degree, but also portable, so able to be brought out into the public realm. Baseball is such a spectator sport. What does it mean to take these materials out from behind closed doors and bring them into the public realm, into the stadium of the contemporary art area? Does the meaning or value of the objects take on a different tone?
CG Absolutely. For me, I’ve essentially unearthed these objects that have been hibernating for decades—meticulously protected, yet valueless—and given them new souls, in hopes that they will be treasured once again.
EG I feel an intense fondness for the objects I create. What I produce comes from my feeling about the beauty and timelessness of baseball. The sport is very public, of course, but the work I do is quiet; I’m alone in my studio. The moment the work leaves my studio and engages with other people it’s completely beyond me. Some people get it, some people don’t. Of course, I would prefer the work be appreciated, but that doesn’t have an impact on my motivation to explore the beauty of these universal cultures. This is why I continue to make quilts because, like the zines, they are removed from the contemporary art arena.
Legacy Russell is BOMBlog’s Art Editor. She is an independent curator, artist, writer and cultural producer.