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Paintings without painters: Harold Ancart’s handball court opens in Cadman Plaza

April 30, 2019 Scott Enman
Harold Ancart, Subliminal Standard at Cadman Plaza Park presented by Public Art Fund, 2019, Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
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“Subliminal Standard,” a large-scale, playable painted sculpture inspired by handball courts from Belgian artist Harold Ancart is now on view at Cadman Plaza on the border of historic Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn.

Ancart said he was inspired by the way in which the city casually paints over graffiti on the city’s more than 2,000 handball courts, leaving traces of the past that do not match with the new colors and textures of the present.

“When you walk around, you notice that not only the handball walls, but a lot of the infrastructure in New York is relentlessly repainted, and it’s done in a very nonchalant way, which I find very beautiful,” Ancart said.

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“When this process repeats itself over the years it gives birth to these incredible paintings. … It’s as if they’re putting a point of honor in using a color that is slightly different from the other one.”

Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

The Brooklyn-based artist spent part of the month of April painting the walls and the floors of the 2,100-square-foot sculpture.

The piece, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, will be on display at the northern end of the park for 10 months through March 1, 2020.

In order to replicate the thinking of the city’s workers, Ancart said he had to casually approach the project without putting any real thought into the physical painting process.

“If you want to work in the same spirit as the workers, it was absolutely unnecessary to come up with a plan,” he said. “When you forget that you’re painting and you really start engaging deeply with painting — and the activity of writing may be the same — you get lost into it and it drags you to put on the paper words you would never come up with if you were not lost in the activity of writing.”

Harold Ancart works on the mural in April. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
Harold Ancart works on the mural in April. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

The immersive 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 for the artist.

Ancart said he initially became enamored with the surfaces, which he called “democratic walls waiting for murals,” while wandering around his Brooklyn neighborhood.

“A handball court is the only structure that offers freestanding walls,” Ancart said. “Whatever is going on, it is always perfectly framed and it’s framed in midair. My idea was very simple. Let’s do the same thing, but instead of using a grayish pallet, let’s push the pallet and offer these ghost monuments a poetic moment.”

The artwork also whimsically plays off the surrounding environment of Cadman Plaza depending on the weather, lighting, shadows and movements of nearby humans.

“These paintings without painters are so much in line with the traditions and history and canon of abstract painting,” the fund’s associate curator Daniel S. Palmer told the Brooklyn Eagle. “The way he responded to the environment around the artwork worked out very successfully.

“There’s a sort of tannish color on the south side of the court that responds to some of the colors of the buildings nearby and the blue of the floor mirrors the sky on a clear sunny day so perfectly.”

A parkgoer plays handball on Ancart's artwork. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
A parkgoer plays handball on Ancart’s artwork. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

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.

It’s also 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 through March 1, 2020.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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