There’s a figure that is not quite a figure, a photo of a man digitally manipulated into an icon, who appears in Marlon Forrester’s bold archival print “African Os II.” Shirtless, he holds an old basketball in front of his face, and his dreadlocks stray over it. Forrester presents mirror images of him, joined at the chest and laid out horizontally. Replicated and faceless, he is hard to recognize as a man. He looks more like a ritual object.
“Playoff X: Recent Works by Marlon Forrester” at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists spotlights the work of a young artist who grew up in Dorchester, recently received his master of fine arts degree from Yale University, and now teaches elementary-level art in the Boston Public Schools. Forrester’s work falls into a tradition pioneered by artists such as Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems, whose creations, in a variety of mediums, decode and lay bare charged cultural doctrines about race.
Forrester deconstructs basketball and its impact on African-American men. Kids who grow up playing on neighborhood courts may see the NBA as the answer to their dreams, but the fast track to basketball stardom can chew young men up. Forrester finds resonances between slavery and professional basketball. In a mixed media work in the “Basketball in Baroque” series, “Player in lynching,” he dramatically describes the form of a basketball player in cotton and molasses — plantation crops. The puffy cotton seems to sweat or bleed dribbles of brown molasses.
That work is searing, but the connection between professional basketball and slavery is a stretch. After all, basketball players are well paid; some are free agents. Forrester’s work here hinges on the objectification of the black male body, a theme he applies, late in the show, to many topics beyond basketball. Sometimes he does it with crisp, startling beauty, as in “African Os II.”
In pieces such as this — another is “Basketball Engraved,” in which an arm grasping a ball joins to a dreadlocked head on a pedestal — the artist abstracts the body. In so doing, he consciously uses it as an object, to illuminate how easily and unconsciously we turn athletes into symbols and icons.
The artist’s efforts to elucidate society’s complex codification of basketball is most evident in the “Basketball Terminology” series. Forrester removes strategic letters from definitions of terms from the game to make an enigmatic poetry that thrusts the reader into uncertainty. He pairs these with photographic images printed as negatives, in nightmarish tones. In “Lay-Up” he truncates that phrase to “Y-UP,” and couples it with an arrow pointing upward and an ominous picture of a man belly-down, being cuffed by police officers. These disturbing pieces compel the viewer to leap between the relative safety of the game and the messiness of life.
Forrester’s installation “Enthroned Basketball” neatly makes use of the outlines of a forecourt, spelling out the deeply ritualized nature of the game. On the floor, the lines are made into tunnel-like tracks, into which the artist has put toy rats, implying that basketball is a closed maze from which the players will never escape.
On the wall behind, he tapes a triangular form that rises to a circle. Below, on a pedestal, we find another basketball, covered with a cheese-like substance — the brass ring the player-rats strive for. “Enthroned Basketball” would be even more successful if Forrester and the museum had the resources to use live animals and real cheese — or perhaps it would make an even better video than an installation.
There is an enigmatic video on view, also called “Playoff X,” in which men dressed in black play tug of war — first on a basketball court, pulling on a woman’s arms, and then in a field, with a rope, and also tugging on a third man’s arms. Forrester depicts competition and the fracturing of relationships, but this dreamy piece is not clear.
The artist’s surreal approach powers some of the work, but it clouds other pieces. The “Basketball in Baroque” series, in which Forrester creates silhouettes of a basketball player in mixed media, can go either way. “Player in lynching,” the cotton and molasses piece, is indelible. But “Player in love” has the silhouette filled with an inky grid (the net?) and the upside-down image of a stately blond woman collaged on one side. Is the blonde another type of trophy? If so, is that love? This piece lacks the lucid punch of “Player in lynching.”
In “50 Shoots,” another series that achieves mixed results, Forrester dives head first into art theory’s suggestion that the artist’s and the viewer’s gaze objectify the subject of a work. He prints portraits on mirrors, presumably to force the objectifying viewer to see him or herself in the portrait, making the experience more personal and subjective. There’s an installation issue here: If you’re taller or shorter, if you don’t stand in exactly the right place, the interaction fails.
In this series, Forrester occasionally works the objectification theme to extremes. In “Defense” he offers up a picture of Dennis Rodman from a Rolling Stone cover: tongue out, eyes wide, horns on his head. Rodman willfully played it over the top, but when Forrester turns President Obama into a clown in “To Catch a Fool,” depicting him grinning, feasting on a watermelon, decked out in nail polish with a corny hat and droopy hair, it’s too much. Yes, many people project fear and loathing on the president (although I don’t know where the nail polish came from). The hyperbole makes it especially challenging for a viewer to identify with the person in the portrait.
On the other hand, “One Shot,” from the same group, depicts Trayvon Martin. Forrester poses him simply, behind a bullet-riddled pane. He’s just an open-faced boy. Here, the mirror technique is deeply affecting.
Art is the perfect realm in which to explore and deconstruct the power of objectification, and that would be a lifetime’s work for any artist. Forrester is just starting out, and still finding his way. Already, he’s taken some assured strides.