It’s hard to find paintings of sports arenas that don’t feel commercial. Corporate sponsorships are plastered or blinking on every surface, and so the arena makes for a difficult environment in which to find traditional elements of beauty that a painter would deem a worthy subject. When you’re watching a game from a new arena there’s even less artistic interest to be found—inside and out—because the space is built for commercial enterprise as much as for the playing of a sport. Arenas can serve as monuments, even part museum, to the history of a sport, but when it comes to their physical space, newer is better, and painting is an old medium that likes old stuff.
Photography lends itself well to artistically capturing a moment on the court, the field, etc. because of its ability to record the details of excitement, emotion, movement, and even specific players. Plus, that medium has developed alongside the development of contemporary sports. They’ve grown up together along with news coverage of sports, making a big ball of modern phenomena.
The sports that have been rendered with paint are mostly outdoor events, such as horse racing and rowing, which are removed from a boxy, bland arena. The painter was able to focus on more traditional subjects--animals and landscape--with the athlete a smaller part of the bigger picture. George Bellows and Thomas Eakins depicted boxing, a sport whose arena created chiaroscuro with its spotlights on the center ring and the bare musculature of the fighters. The result is beautiful figure paintings.
I do think baseball stadiums put a value on nostalgia more than any other professional sport does, so if arenas could ever be the subject of a new wave of genre painting, I say start with ballparks. I was enjoying a gorgeous night at Wrigley Field recently, a stadium whose old age and relatively low level of corporate interference are highly regarded and somewhat protected. I decided to try my hand at a painting of the ballpark, and I, too, focused on the natural landscape. I liked using the stadium architecture and the residential buildings behind the outfield as a long silhouette against the colorful sun-setting sky. This year the ballpark added the huge, lit Nuveen sign over the left field bleachers, and I chose to not include it in my rendering. Maybe if it had been a more interesting word or not lit, I would have included it. I think I would have kept the Budweiser logo that used to be (painted!) on the big roof behind the bleachers. Even that product name has age and history that Nuveen does not. As a baseball fan, I love the new digital, high-resolution scoreboard out there, but as a painter I didn’t want its bright rectangle to interrupt the quiet, dark skyline of apartment buildings. I did include the stadium lights on its roof (they were added in 1988—old enough to make the cut). As I painted between the scaffolds that hold them up, that passage began to look like stained glass to me, an unintentional but delightful effect.
Maybe in thirty more years a painter will love the “iconic” Nuveen sign framing left field. And maybe Wrigley Field will bring back corn dogs.
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