DEREK FORDJOUR The Big Gameby Jonathan Goodman
THE STOREFRONT TEN EYCK | SEPTEMBER 5 – OCTOBER 5, 2014
Still in grad school at Hunter College’s fine arts program, the artist Derek Fordjour has nonetheless pulled off a terrific, completely professional show of paintings and sculptures. He works with the grand metaphor of sports as a way of reading the black experience in America (Fordjour is the son of Ghanaian immigrants, who established their home and career in the South). The metaphor has to do with the still problematic position of African-Americans both in and outside the world of professional sports, which promises talented athletes celebrity and wealth but all too often fails to deliver the goods—or takes pleasure in their fall.
At the same time, Fordjour cleverly develops his metaphor to include upward aspiration in a way that transforms competitive athletic experience into something larger, and deeper, than the court or playing field. The tension between the work’s evident meaning and the larger aim of his portraits and sculptures of football heroes and basketball stars is key to the exhibition’s success. His point is serious and germane to contemporary life; Fordjour articulately demonstrates the dangers inherent with the identification of sports with black people in America—that such allusions inevitably lead to a misreading of their ambition and forms a constraint to higher goals.
The analogy of sport succeeds because as an idea, it holds true in real life—identification between the privileged athlete and the marginal youth is quite clear. (Professional athletes are currently charged with child abuse, domestic violence, and even murder.) Fordjour works representationally, with great stylistic imagination. Technically, his process for the athlete portraits is rather involved. He begins with eight layers of the Financial Times newspaper, the periodical being deliberately chosen for its emphasis on economy. A layer of spray paint follows, whose colors are mostly hidden by bits and pieces of painted, textured paper, which is then painted over again with the final image. In this sense, each athlete’s portrait is both a painting and a collage, an intricate process that affords us the study of a young black man’s image, even if we cannot identify him as a star.
There is also embedded the idea of the artist as player, which in today’s art market, is a highly accurate description. Overall, however, the portraits deny any specific identity; Fordjour wants to turn the young sportsman he describes into a kind of “everyman.” “No. 85” (2014) presents the indistinct features of a black athlete wearing an orange-striped jersey against a background pattern of black diamonds. The surface of the picture attains the depth of a low relief, muffling the image’s particularity in favor of a nostalgic haze of reference. There is heroism in the image, but that too is modified by the indistinctness of the details. The success of the portrait lies in its being applicable to anyone who has sought fame in America. It isn’t difficult to work out the implications of “No. 85,” who tellingly has a number but not a name: the black athlete is at once celebrated and made anonymous, needed by society but also a servant of his very fortune.
In the remarkable sculpture, “Single Coverage” (2014), a gaily-patterned canopy sticks out of the helmet and head of a black football player; according to Fordjour, the umbrella gives the nod to street commerce both here and in Africa. A small banner hangs from the pole supporting the canopy’s fabric top. It is in some ways a surreal image, but its old-fashioned aura—it looks like the player is wearing a leather helmet—renders it nostalgic and in a strange way, highly postmodern. It seems to project innocence or emotional neutrality, but not the implications of the sculpture’s signs. Being disingenuous is part of the game.
Another painting of two cheerleaders supporting a third, who stands on their legs, is memorable too as an image that runs deeper than its description. Two of the young women are black; the third is white. They celebrate, again with supposed innocence, a way of life in America: the big play in which athletes become heroes only to fade into the background as soon as the game is over. Here again, the reference to the artist’s career is implied, and we remember Warhol’s maxim: in a mercantile democracy, everyone will enjoy 15 minutes of fame.
In addition to the connection between sports and the artist, Fordjour also has a piece driven by the broad influence of modern art—“Topdog/Underdog” (2014)—which offers a Brancusian endless column consisting of eight athletes rising, head stacked on head, from a distinctly Duchampian wheel. The title inevitably refers to the position of the star athlete’s wheel of fortune, whose unknown turn also points to the unknown destiny of an artist like Fordjour. It is a witty piece whose effect is greater than the sum of its parts. One recognizes that the work’s upward movement is both subtle and necessary—two adjectives that describe this show’s compelling effect on its audience.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than 20 years.