Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Not many good contemporary painters fully embrace sports. The subject is burdened by daunting precedent (George Bellows) and mild cliché (Leroy Neiman). But this century, as social media have enabled athletes to reveal and fans to probe the people behind and beyond the moves, sports have acquired greater social and political resonance, sending a stronger demand signal to artists. Witness Simone Biles’s brave acknowledgement of her own fragility, or Colin Kaepernick’s bold leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement. In Zach Seeger’s “Sports,” a solo show of loosely figurative acrylic paintings at Gold Montclair in Upper Montclair, the artist recognizes the tightening connection between athletic competition and human endeavor writ large, and conquers the challenge of making the visual representation of sport fresher and deeper.
Perhaps through sheer empathy, Seeger is able at once to depict athletes as performers and to delineate the broader context that properly – and less neatly – defines their place in the world. In the large-scale Lisa Leslie, he’s in the paint, as it were, with the iconic, Compton-born former professional basketball star, as the figure appears to be driving to the hoop. Yet he is also watching her from a distance as she faces a yellow void with no players, crowd, or basket in evidence, suggesting the incompleteness of any athlete’s identity merely as an athlete. Naomi Osaka separates persona and person even more starkly, showing the tennis player as an action figure next to a window on a garden – incongruous at first but soon decipherable as framing the dynamic silhouette as a mere television image distinct from the flesh-and-blood person who can, it transpires, become disaffected with the fishbowl. Two paintings of extreme fighters drive home the claustrophobic oppression of being compelled to perform at risk.
General George S. Patton – himself an Olympic pentathlete while at West Point – often noted that “all glory is fleeting,” and Seeger gets the wide and durable applicability of the adage. In the haunting Figure in a Landscape, a veritable paean to the athlete’s transience, the lower leg of a runner completing a race appears to have been severed. If Seeger has apprehended the instability of the athletic vocation, though, he still appreciates the moments of grace it offers. Two paintings are of current and retired professional golfers – Michelle Wie and Nancy Lopez– swinging from lovely pastoral settings. But they know, as we do, that the serenity is artificial. In Simone Biles, Seeger sets the great gymnast in elegant isolation on the balance beam, concentrating on her arduous move. Yet her expression seems furtive and fretful, and the light of the crowd fades as the eye scans in the direction of her gaze.
Other paintings more directly juxtapose the perishably hermetic nature of the sporting life with the messier reality of life in general, which of course lasts longer and burns dimmer. Serena seems to remove the younger Williams sister from the tennis court altogether and place her in a kind of existential ether, as though she has become a symbol of something bigger and more complicated than an athlete. In Oksana Baiul, the Ukrainian former figure skater and Olympic gold medalist strikes a skaterly pose in a notional rink, but there’s an ominous storm gathering behind her. Marta has the eponymous Brazilian soccer star dribbling the ball on a thinning green expanse as a lavender cloud encroaches on her playing space.
On a technical level, Seeger achieves remarkably tactile painterly effects with customarily flat acrylic paint while energetically exploiting its bright pastel colors and their distinctive opacity. Metaphorically, these properties, in his hands, invest the paintings with heart and firmness as well as eye. But his larger virtue is subtler. Somewhat like David Humphrey, Seeger has the unusual capacity to make a figurative painting equally holistic and narrative. It’s a gift. And “Sports” is about a lot more than sports.
“Zach Seeger: Sports,” Gold Montclair, 594 Valley Road, Mews, Upper Montclair, NJ. Through May 1, 2022.