Downtown

Playable Art: Installation of Harold Ancart’s painted handball court starts in Cadman Plaza

March 21, 2019 Scott Enman
A concept rendering of Harold Ancart’s “Subliminal Standard.” Courtesy of Harold Ancart

Contemporary art and recreational sport will soon come together as one at Cadman Plaza Park in Downtown Brooklyn.

Construction of “Subliminal Standard,” a large-scale, playable painted handball court from Harold Ancart, is underway at the northern end of the park.

The piece, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, opens on May 1 and runs for 10 months through March 1.

Installation of “Subliminal Standard,” a large-scale, playable painted handball court from Harold Ancart, has begun at the northern end of the park. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Installation of “Subliminal Standard,” a large-scale, playable painted handball court from Harold Ancart, has begun at the northern end of the park. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Ancart became enamored with handball courts, which he called “democratic walls, waiting for murals,” while wandering around his Brooklyn neighborhood, according to the fund’s associate curator Daniel S. Palmer.

“He was really inspired by the handball courts that are ubiquitous all around New York City,” Palmer told the Brooklyn Eagle. “The city has more than 2,000 courts, many of them were constructed during the Great Depression, and they’re really meant to be a democratic place for sport.

“The game itself is so egalitarian and was pioneered by immigrants and the working class. All you need is a ball to play, which you can buy very cheaply and then hit against a wall, which is really a public amenity.”

Ancart will paint the walls and the floor of the two-sided 16-foot-tall, 26-foot-wide sculpture. (The floor will be 40-feet-long by 30-feet-wide.)

The piece highlights a quintessentially New York game, one that is played in parks and schoolyards citywide, and it marks the first U.S. public art commission from the Brooklyn-based, Belgian artist.

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“There’s a large central expanse, an open area with beautiful London planetrees all around it, and this artist’s painted sculpture is going to fit really nicely nestled into that area,” associate curator Daniel S. Palmer said. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
“There’s a large central expanse, an open area with beautiful London planetrees all around it, and this artist’s painted sculpture is going to fit really nicely nestled into that area,” associate curator Daniel S. Palmer said. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Not only will viewers be able to play on the concrete sculpture, but they will also get to see the artist painting in April — a rare site for someone who normally works within the confines of a private studio. In preparation for the larger project, Ancart has been constructing smaller plywood handball court maquettes.

“Harold was also inspired by murals, and mural painting, as a visual correlative,” Palmer said. “It’s about bringing beauty directly to the people without the need of going to a museum or paying a lot of money to see art in a private collection.

“The beauty and the composition is presented in a way that we would never be able to experience with a painting hanging on a wall.”

“Subliminal Standard” also shows the ease with which one can transform and beautify blank walls into usable surfaces.

“Harold was especially inspired by the accidental compositions that appear on these handball walls when they are worn down or damaged and then typically repaired by the city,” Palmer said.

“When they’re repaired — to fix over graffiti — this is typically done in a way that produces a vernacular painting. Often times, the city’s paints don’t exactly match the original color and texture of the paints that had been on the wall for quite some time.”

Initially introduced by Irish immigrants at the end of the 19th century, according to NYC Parks, handball was played primarily by New York’s working, immigrant class.

Handball historians once claimed that Brooklyn boasted the first-ever handball court in America, according to the United States Handball Association, but it was later discovered that two courts had been constructed earlier in San Francisco.

The game is still popular in New York City with more than 2,000 courts spread out across the five boroughs.

The exhibition marks a return to Cadman Plaza of the fusion of art and sport. One of the fund’s most celebrated exhibitions, David Hammons’ “Higher Goals,” was presented in the green space in 1986. It featured basketball hoops on bedazzled telephone poles covered with eccentric objects.

One of the Public Art Fund’s most celebrated exhibitions, David Hammons’ “Higher Goals,” was presented at Cadman Plaza Park in 1986. Photo by Pinkney Herbert / Jennifer Secor, courtesy Public Art Fund
One of the Public Art Fund’s most celebrated exhibitions, David Hammons’ “Higher Goals,” was presented at Cadman Plaza Park in 1986. Photo by Pinkney Herbert / Jennifer Secor, courtesy Public Art Fund

Similarly, it’s not the first time that the Public Art Fund commissioned an artist to showcase a quintessentially New York staple. Erwin Wurm’s “Hot Dog Bus,” which debuted last June featured a vintage Volkswagen Microbus that was transformed into a bloated and bizarre-looking hot dog stand. The iconic street food of the Big Apple was originally an immigrant food and also had Brooklyn roots.

The organization has commissioned several other prominent pieces in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn that also complemented and played off the surrounding urban environment.

Iranian artist Siah Armajani’s “Bridge Over Tree” is currently on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park. The artwork features a 91-foot-long walkway with a set of stairs that rise and fall over a single evergreen tree. It’s situated between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

In May 2017, the group brought Anish Kapoor’s “Descension,” a 26-foot-wide whirlpool, to Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1.

A year earlier, the group installed Martin Creed’s “Understanding,” a 25-foot-tall, rotating neon sculpture, at Pier 6.

The nonprofit also displayed Jeppe Hein’s “Please Touch The Art” in the park in May 2015, which featured a series of interactive sculptures, mirrors and fountains.

Not far from Cadman Plaza, the Public Art Fund also installed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “Fences” at a Downtown Brooklyn bus shelter.

“Subliminal Standard” will be on display at Cadman Plaza Park from May 1 through March 1, 2020.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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