Critique | ‘Fix Your Pony!’

Naughton Gallery, Queens University Belfast; 9 February – 6 April 2023

A Klass, Untitled skateboarding photographs, 2022, ‘Fix Your Pony!’, installation view; photograph by Simon Mills, courtesy of the artists and Naughton Gallery. A Klass, Untitled skateboarding photographs, 2022, ‘Fix Your Pony!’, installation view; photograph by Simon Mills, courtesy of the artists and Naughton Gallery.

‘Fix Your Pony!’ is the fifth iteration of the Naughton Gallery’s ongoing sports exhibition series, featuring works that, according to the gallery literature, tackle “race, gender, politics, sexuality and beyond.” While arguably a broad claim, there is no denying the breadth of sports, nationalities and ethnicities represented, from Frankie Quinn’s black and white photographs of football fans in 80s and 90s Ireland – one memorable shot from the stands showing silhouetted children suspended from the chain-link fences, installed around the pitches – to Bram Paulussen’s extraordinary action shot of what appears to be a modern-day chariot/bull race in West Bali, all rippling flags, dust clouds and raw sinew. 

Furthermore, reading the backstories of some of the personalities that feature in the show adds weight to that claim of tackling multiple issues. For example, WNBA All-Star, Brittney Griner – depicted in Rachelle Baker’s digital painting – was used as a political pawn and sentenced to nine years in Russia for a minor drug offence. Likewise, the iconic track-and-field sprinter and “proud member of the LGBTQ+ community”, Sha’Carri Richardson – the subject of a specially-commissioned portrait by Irish illustrator Laura Callaghan – was barred from the 2020 Summer Olympics for a similar transgression. Finally, tennis star Naomi Osaka – here portrayed in a photograph by Justin French in a traditional Japanese setting, wearing an upcycled Nike sportswear belt and gown – is well-known for her Black Lives Matter activism. 

Most of the disciplines referenced in the exhibition are individual sports. Exceptions include the tag-teams, lovingly-illustrated by Jaime Hernandez as sturdy, female, comic-book wrestlers. From weightlifting and skateboarding to surfing and tennis, the exhibition invites reflection on the uncompromising levels of commitment required, alongside the intense scrutiny of professional sportsmen and women and their interior lives, often from a very young age. 

Although inhabiting very different contexts, two video works, in particular, highlight moments of being observed, yet necessarily oblivious to the gaze of others. The first is Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s Suspension […] from 2020 (the full title of which names all 28 gymnasts depicted). The video montage comprises footage from all over the world, showing black female gymnasts preparing for their respective routines on the vault, bars, beam or floor. Each clip hones in on that moment of complete concentration before the action begins. Deep breaths and nervous facial movements alternate with fleeting smiles of confidence, whispered prayers perhaps, or words of self-encouragement. As with any portrait, we’re compelled to read internal thoughts from visible signs flickering on the surface; it’s also a moment of empathy and humanity. 

The second is Niall Cullen’s Three hours for three seconds (2023) in which a skateboarder and filmmaker try to capture a complicated manoeuvre on the busy streets of Dublin’s Temple Bar. Through countless attempts, the skater strives to remain focused as passers-by intervene – from hecklers and curious kids to one very vocal man’s overbearing encouragement. While the feat being recorded seems inconsequential at first, one is gradually won over on a human level by the skater’s dogged determination in a very public arena, and the (literally) bruising attempts to achieve his goal, which seem as genuine as that of any other athlete. M.S. Harkness’s black and white comic-strip weightlifter, on the other hand, feels less observed – in training, perhaps. As she works through her reps, her thoughts are voiced through a series of captions that reveal a world not of psyched-up self-talk, as one might assume, but one of meditative contemplation. 

Striking a similarly contemplative note are two oil paintings by Dougal McKenzie, on what appears to be repurposed sailcloth; strategically placed cringles and larger apertures reveal painted stretcher bars beneath. Their verbose titles refer to actors, Burt Lancaster and Richard Harris, within arenas of competition – swimming and racquetball respectively. 

Although skateboarding is an official Olympic sport since 2020, looking at A Klass’s Untitled skateboarding photographs (2022) feels like peering into a subculture of a subculture. The unnamed figures from L.A.’s women, non-binary and queer skate scene – depicted wearing skirts, fishnets, face paint, wigs and butterfly wings, many captured mid-flight among chain-link fences, back alleys and parking lots – are like vigilante superheroes in an alternative Beastie Boys video.  

As a sports ignoramus, I was far too pleased about simply recognising two of the figures depicted in the show as Shaq O’Neal and Magic Johnson (albeit as collectible pot-bellied figurines with transparent, Mickey-Mouse ears). I was also reminded of professional sport’s inextricable entanglement with big brand sponsorship. Adidas and Emirates feature in the presented works, as does the ubiquitous Nike; Osaka’s portrait and Sonny Ross’s illustrated montage of tennis legend Serena Williams rack up 14 ‘swooshes’ between them.

Nonetheless, with over 40 individual pieces by 15 international artists across multiple disciplines, ‘Fix Your Pony!’ attests to sport’s enduring ability to inspire not only intense human emotions but also thought-provoking, beautiful and entertaining works of art. 

Jonathan Brennan is a multidisciplinary artist based in Belfast.