‘To Give and Take’, the art of Alvin Armstrong
Sport as a means of artistic production and social reflection. Interview with the American artist
‘To Give and Take’ is the new series of paintings produced by Alvin Armstrong, currently exhibited at the Anna Zorina Gallery in New York.
A visual immersion in the concept of African American sports icons, a reflection on the vulnerability of Blackness, on the juxtaposition between athletic excellence and social irrelevance.
We interviewed the Brooklyn-based artist. We had the opportunity to deepen the meanings and signifiers of his works, to understand the position of sport in his life and in his artistic production.
The relationship between art and sport: how did the idea of using sport as a means of artistic communication come about?
I think it’s easy for many people to connect with sports visually, even if a person isn’t particularly interested in a specific game or the rules, etc. It’s almost like a universal language. At the very least, the energy of sport is especially interesting to convey through visual arts, no matter the medium. I’m obviously not the first artist to be inspired by the action, power and socio-political aspect of competitive sports, but because of my own experience as an athlete, it will probably continue to be a throughline in my work.
In our vision sport is culture. Would you tell us something about your relationship with it?
My father got a full scholarship to college for basketball. That opportunity changed his life; it allowed him to move out of South Central Los Angeles. Sports were always seen as a viable pathway to success and stability for me, my sister and brothers. We understood from a young age that excelling at sports could potentially mean free education and bettering our circumstances. Sports have been the backdrop of my life and set a standard of achievement that has translated to my painting practice today. I think professional sports, specifically, play a complex role in the United States. Americans are often unified by sports and they provide some reprieve in difficult times like the pandemic, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Your work shows the excellence of African American athletes on the one hand and the vulnerability of their community on the other. Could you tell us something about the social criticism that is revealed in ‘To Give and Take’?
The attributes of Black athletes: strength, speed, agility, fight, dominance, are celebrated when they’re on the field or the court, but when a (sports) uniform isn’t present, those same attributes become threats to society. The title came from the idea that Black people in this country have to be extraordinary, to achieve basic human rights like respect and physical safety. The duality of Black Americans being so celebrated as athletes and culture creators and yet over-policed and under-resourced was the inspiration for ‘To Give and Take’.
What are the influences behind your painting style, and what does the use of certain colors depend on? Did you take inspiration from other artists who have dealt with the sports theme to work on this series?
I have so much gratitude and respect for the artists who came before as well as my contemporaries. I feel anyone who makes themselves vulnerable enough to put work out in the world to be seen and criticized by the public deserves our respect. A few of my immediate art heroes are Henry Taylor, Benny Andrews and Noah Davis. What I appreciate most, besides their incredible talent, is their fearlessness. Their work showcases a blend of risk and expression. I try to be fearless in my own work; I try to trust my intuition and to move through and let go.
What do you think of the exponential socio-political commitment of high-level athletes? Can sportsmen and artists change society with their actions, words and works?
I think both sports and the arts can impact society in meaningful ways. Artists and athletes, when successful, can build followings and platforms that can be used to leverage power for marginalized people. I think with great power comes great responsibility and I don’t think artists or athletes have the luxury to stay out of socio-political discourse in this country in 2021.
Do you think that sport will be an inspiration also for your future artistic production?
Sports will always influence my practice if not literally in the subject matter, in the way that I paint. But I like to remain open in terms of the future. I’m excited about the collective energy I feel from all of my contemporaries, especially Black artists. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow and evolve; the possibilities are endless.
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