Sport of Violence. We're Living in a Ben Stone Age"
by Pedro Velez
you ever seen a thawed-out caveman brought back to life? How
about two cavemen? On September 19, 2002, William Ligue Jr.
and his 15-year-old son jumped onto the playing field in Cellular
Field (home of the White Sox) and attacked Kansas City Royals
first-base-coach Tom Gamboa. Shirtless, out-of-control and under-the-influence,
this pair of super fanatics was acting up without a reasonable
cause. The scene was ridiculous and scary; especially for U.S.
audiences not accustomed to seeing physical violence perpetrated
against their sports heroes. Nothing new to soccer fans across
The Ligues might have disgraced the holy grounds of baseball’s
diamond dirt a long time ago, but their specter still lingers
in Ben Stone’s psyche. Luckily for us, because the artist
is about to unveil a major work based on the events. Using the
attackers as metaphor for all dysfunctional American families,
Stone, a resident of Berwyn, has built three life-size realist
sculptures, or contemporary versions of Roman statues, that
capture the exact moment Gamboa hit the ground, his cap flying,
while the father-and-son tag team frantically surround him,
in poses reminiscent of prehistoric men. Sure to raise some
eyebrows, the sculptures will be on view starting this Friday
at Western Exhibitions.
Stone, who is never short on words yet claims his social skills
are somewhat not up to par with those of the so-called art-world
socialites, catalogues the crazy attack as “a ghost in
the machine” or “a disruption in the system.”
There is always a possibility The Ligues were possessed by “darker
cultural histories of segregation of the first Daley administration,
the Stockyards and Steve Dahl’s infamous disco demolition.”
Looking at pixilated printouts of the father in handcuffs, he
goes on to explain that his interest is more of an obsession
with any kind of “unimportant history that somehow gets
transformed by the media and the collective consciousness.”
Funny thing is that, while we were talking about drunks, Stone
stood stoically under a huge Old Style beer-advertisement lightbox
hanging gloriously from the ceiling of his studio.
What strikes me about the sculptures is how rightfully pungent
they are in their portrayal of the Hollywood-type clichés
and veiled racism many harbor about the Midwest. Is not to say
they are judgmental; on the contrary, they are kind of sad and
contemplative, embracing sports culture with respect and as
valuable subject matter, not as punch line. A fitting homage
to our nation’s desperate attempt to cope with the unknown
variants brought on by the economic debacle. Variants that have
produced social tensions in the middle class, the formation
of a senseless movement (Tea Party) advocating radicalism and
an immigration-reform emergency in which bickering, not common
sense, is the order of the day. Temporarily gone are thoughtful
discussions of ideas or ideals. As of today, it has become clear
that the nation is looking for someone to blame, and that “someone”
will have to pay. To make a direct parallel with professional
sports: the other team (the one that competes against ours)
is always the “bad guys.”
Truth is violence is intrinsic to competitive sports and, in
the United States, culture is in bed with all things violent.
All you have to do is pay a visit to a Little League baseball
game and you will hear a broad variety of atrocities screamed
at coaches and kid players. Parents hassle coaches, coaches
point fingers at kids, kids scream at parents and parents, in
return, shake their kids when they do not perform as expected.
It is a never-ending cycle.
Or take American football, for example, where commentators make
use of lingo proper for combat to describe plays: “blitz”
(after blitzkrieg), “attack the defensive line,”
“the quarterback fired a laser.” The most atrocious
might be “sudden death,” which is used to describe
a tiebreaker. Thankfully, the expression is metaphorical—no
actual death is involved. Now, imagine how a 5-year-old filters
“war” talk watching opposing teams compete on Thanksgiving
Day, while the whole family gathers around the television.
Cheating is violent too; it involves psychological aggression
and deceit to impose one’s own interest at the expense
of others. Regardless, the Steroid Era made it acceptable for
baseball players to juice as long as their bodies could hold
it in. Deformed torsos and gigantic heads also became fashionable
in the field during the nineties. Then why is it that, to this
day, we still are surprised the junior Ligue followed his dad
onto the field?
Ben Stone makes art that relates to all kinds of public without
putting high art versus low art into play. The effect is similar
to the reaction masses have when they see Bruce Nauman’s
“Clown Torture” or Jeff Koons satirical ode “Michael
Jackson and Bubbles.” I would even dare make a parallel
to Gus Van Sant and his emotional stance on the Columbine shootings
elaborated in his film “Elephant.”
Unlike many of his younger contemporaries, Stone has commanding
use of craft, palpable in the intricate reproductions he has
made of the attacker’s tattoos, jeans and jewelry throughout
the rough white bodies of the sculptures. These drawings, made
surprisingly in generic ballpoint pen, are a medium he enjoys
because of “its immediacy, it’s cheap, and the washed-out
blue color of the pen brings a connection to people… to
‘what I did when I was a kid’.” When Stone
makes art he also gets physical, tackling the material firsthand
by carving, building up, shaping or injecting resins into massive
blocks of polystyrene.
Nevertheless, not everything in the exhibition is about contained
emotion; other works deal with symbols of criminal behavior,
wit, kitsch, comedy and innocent characters from nineties anime.
One is a large conic black sculpture strictly based in the semi-abstract
humanoid found in the neighborhood watch signage. In another,
a colorful and glossy wall relief of characters from Pokémon
plays tribute to video-game advertisements found in stores like
GameStop. The rest is a vivacious mix of cool additions, custom
made to fit already existing objects: a mini bust of a crying
Abraham Lincoln, painted in bright orange, wears a handmade
Chicago Bears pom-pon-topped knit cap. To round things out is
a pathetic-looking five-foot-tall elephant, its body made out
of twisted rope and leather ears.
Having been a fan of Ben Stone for so many years I get the feeling
he is out to prove once and for all, to the powers that be,
that he is one of the most important artists this city has,
and probably the United States. Case in point is that with five
solo shows under his belt—in a period of eleven years—he
has produced more than a handful of iconic works. Among them
is “The Ghost of Harry Caray,” an inflatable memorial
to the legendary Chicago baseball announcer paraded over Wrigley
Field during the Cubs playoff game against the San Francisco
Giants in 1998, a piece that got a ton of attention from national
media outlets. On the conceptual side of things is “Weathercasters”
(1997), a selection of photographs of every single weathercaster
on Chicago television autographed exclusively for the artist.
One of the most memorable is the floor sculpture “Mary
Lou” (1999), an upper-torso-only portrait of gymnast Mary
Lou Retton with her arms upheld triumphantly and her noisy smile
forever frozen in time.
Others are the hilarious “Nuptron 4000? (2004), which
is the outspoken robot who married the artist, and “Octopus”
(2002), the large pink mollusc in detention who plays a bagpipe.
When asked about his landmark exhibition at Ten in One Gallery
in Wicker Park (1999), and how apparently he didn’t get
all the attention expected from such a hit, the artist comments
without guilt, “That show killed me mentally, the prospect
of being successful frightened me, as it does to a lot of people.”
Being the good guy he is, Stone might have wanted to conceal
the real reason: We (Chicago) have taken him for granted.
His familiarity has seemingly become impediment and, like the
dysfunctional family we are, we have wrongfully believed his
work is safe in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary
Art and the Art Institute, or that he has represented Chicago
in various international Biennials. Well, that is not the case.
Now that we know, maybe it is time we put him batting fourth
in the lineup. Let’s win this game.