As many Americans prepare for the ultimate football showcase Super Bowl Sunday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art kicks off a new exhibition celebrating a more global sport: soccer. "Fútbol: the Beautiful Game" opens February 2 at the Miracle Mile museum and presents offerings by nearly 30 artists whose works center in some way on the sport. Timed to coincide with the upcoming launch of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the show was curated by Franklin Sirmans, whose previous showcases included the Ai Weiwei's outdoor sculpture series "Circle of Animals" and the 2011 exhibition "Glenn Ligon: America." The collection celebrates diverse pieces from international artists, including a gargantuan print by German photographer Andreas Gursky and a sculptural soccer ball by English artist Satch Hoyt, as well as American artists including Brooklyn's rising-star painter Kehinde Wiley and Pop Art provocateur Andy Warhol.
After all, soccer isn't just a game; it's a symbol, where global competition represents a microcosm of international politics. Countries compete with each other on an equal playing field, where the colonized take on the colonizers and developing countries battle with so-called developed ones. Whether it's played on the streets of Port-au-Prince or the stadiums of Istanbul, soccer is the connective tissue that binds cultures together regardless of ideology or religion. The game itself isn't art, but it is artful, imbued with the beauty of an careening corner kick arching into the goal, or even the droning Om of a thousand vuvuzelas bleating in unison.
Southern California artists were particularly well-represented in the show, including an entire wall space dedicated to new prints commissioned by storied East Los Angeles art space Self Help Graphics. Altadena-based artist Nery Gabriel Lemus said that his print "Thank You for the Game" portrays a homemade soccer ball, like the one he and his friends played with as a child. "There's something unifying about soccer, all you need is a ball and you can play anywhere," he said at the exhibition's January 29 preview, which buzzed with sounds of polyglot small talk from attendees throughout the expansive third floor BCAM space.
Alongside Lemus' work was "Gooooooooal!," a serigraph by Iranian-American artist Amitis Motevalli, which depicts children playing soccer in front of a large explosion as a masked person perches with a rocket launcher. Motevalli's work interfaced with a geopolitical theme that connected some of the works, exploring the cultural implications of soccer rather than its athletic properties. In Carolyn Castano's print "Escobar 4," the head of Andrés Escobar -- the soccer star who was killed in Colombia, as some believe, for having accidentally scored a goal on his own team - lays among flowers and animals, as part of her ongoing explorations of narcoviolence.
Some works investigated the expectations of masculinity, like Generic Art Solutions' Pieta photograph and Wiley's exultation of the male form backed by Arabesque pattern-work. Other works took a more playful approach, like Paul Pfeiffer's three channel digital video loop "Caryatid (Red, Yellow, Blue)" broadcast slow motion clips of soccer players falling to the ground during injuries, highlighting the dramatic facial expressions and clutching of various body parts, seeming to cast light on the theatrical nature of soccer, where players are well-known for flamboyantly faking injuries. Mexican filmmaker Miguel Calderon's 90 minute video "Mexico vs Brasil" was culled from years of games between the two teams, this time edited only to show the Mexican team scoring goals time after time, leaving the Brazilian team scoreless. Berlin-based Israeli artist Alon Levin created a foosball table outfitted with a mechanism that allows one person to play against himself. "I imagined it to look like a grand piano," Levin said while peering into the gears of his machine, "Artifice Master, the Autostrategem," "but playing it is like playing chess against yourself; the game will go on forever."