A Reflection on Squash and the Arts

squash-art-1I recently attended my first squash match at Brown University’s Pizzitola Sports Center. It was an afternoon featuring the top men’s singles players from Brown against Princeton in one of the last meets of this season. Beyond the spectacular display of athleticism and strategy, I found myself enjoying an unexpected inter-disciplinary arts extravaganza.

It’s a fast, hard game, not for the feint of heart. The improvised, high speed same-sex pas de deux, performed by opponents in a circumscribed  4-walled court, has an intensity and grace that rival a choreographed modern dance concert. With speeds up to 176 mph, the repetitive, percussive Edgard Varese-esque thwack of the ball against the cubicle walls is hypnotic and engaging. Could artist Sol Lewitt’s  Wall Drawing #118 have been inspired by the trajectory of endlessly surprising angles traveled by a squash ball in play?  A player’s ability to change the direction of the tiny hollow rubber ball at the last instant is a tactic used to unbalance one’s opponent. Gravity appears to be defied. Sound and movement are driven, unpredictable and exciting, the elements of great theater

And then… there are the walls.

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Each court is covered in what looks, at first, like an updated abstract version of Upper Paleolithic Chauvet Cave painting. Bearing the scars of thousands of black marks chronicling prior squash battles, the white walls simultaneously exhibit documentation of the past as well as a live performance-art work in the making. In the visual art world, this kind of process-based art-making, where drawings are mostly composed of the residual markings of movement, emerged from the  Abstract Expressionism and Action painting movements. Although I found the multiple squash matches exciting and engrossing, I confess, I found the walls equally enchanting. As I watched speeding balls creating the accumulation of new black marks in varied compositions, my mind wandered to art history.

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Jackson Pollack’s landmark 1940s drip paintings were the result of his actions, the paintbrush merely an extension of his arm. Each movement would fling paint onto the floor canvas.  In the late 1950s, Shiraga Kazuo, eliminated the paintbrush altogether and used his entire body as the art-making tool. Suspended, he painted with his feet on floor-based canvases, and once wrestled mud as a public performance. John Cage’s Cleaning My Pen, an undated artifact from the composer’s days at Black Mountain College and Art Center is, as advertised, a sheet of the repeated black ink marks with which fountain pen users are familiar. cleaning-my-pen-john-cage

William Anastasi’s pocket drawings of the late 1960s involved paper sheets folded into eight squares, making them small enough to fit into the artist’s pocket. As he walked, he held a tiny, soft pencil against the exposed paper inside the cramped space of his pocket; the resulting marks graph his movements. When he deemed a section complete, Anastasi refolded the sheet, creating a new blank surface; the process began again.

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Using paper as a stage, dancer Trisha Brown, in her work It’s a Draw/Live Feed, 2003, moved across a sheet large enough to encompass her whole body. Holding pastels or graphite in her fingers and toes, she rolled, pivoted, pushed, skidded, pulled and swooped, breaking her materials, skipping them over the surface, rubbing up the texture of the floor beneath, sweating, fidgeting, smearing, resulting in a series of drawings.its-a-draw-trisha-brownBarb Bondi is an artist working today in the tradition of mark-making as evidence of human activity.  In her ongoing Work Effort Subset Series, she dusted the wheels of her office chair with powdered graphite to record the imprint of the chair’s wheels as Bondi completed a week of work,  making tangible the efforts of labor.

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To create her work titled Suspension, Bondi slept in a head-to-foot spandex body suit enhanced with compressed charcoal fragments to record body movement. She slept on a 72 X 38 inch piece of Stonehenge paper mounted on plywood. When she awoke, the charcoal had marked her movements during sleep. 

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Kevin Townsend, another contemporary artist, created Residue of a Shadow. The gallery installation of gilded tea bags filled with powdered graphite, responded to any movement in the space, transferring graphite which marked the wall, creating the drawing.  Townsend states, “Deposited over time, as human movement through an interstitial space caused the bags to sway- the force of each impact adds a fine layer of graphite…So much of what I’m working with now is about what is left behind, the residue. Our memories are like this, the accumulated residue of our actions, the debris of sensation and cognition accumulated over time, marking us.”

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My squash meet reverie may not reflect the passion others have for this compelling sport. Nor will it be of much value in the continuing debate on inclusion of squash as an olympic sport. But take a look, next time you can, at the art that is happening  where you least expect it.