Art of Hockey: A Mini Survey of Three Contemporary Artists

Diana Thorneycroft, Winter on the Don (2007)

On the eve of Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final in my hometown of Vancouver, I thought it might be interesting to highlight three contemporary artists who have chosen to feature the subject of hockey in their art practice. It will come as no surprise that a number of Canadian artists have featured the national sport as part of a larger commentary on the shared cultural experience, nostalgia, and spectacle that hockey signals for its many audiences. Among them is the work of Diana Thorneycroft and her photographic series “Group of Seven Awkward Moments” which includes the image Winter on the Don (pictured above--which I especially like because it features a Boston Bruin player sinking into the ice). Her stories combine plastic figures reminiscent of childhood play within carefully staged fantasy settings and what is argued by art critics as an “iconoclastic” vision of Canada. No doubt these players are evoking the often cited moment of most hockey players lives when they pretended as children to be playing in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final.  In this sense, there is something very evocative and familiar about  this image. Still, as art critic Bernard Perrine argues about Thorneycroft’s approach, “she toys with feelings of national identity, revealing their artificial nature. The artificial settings with their natural lighting are visual lies, sending the spectator towards a world of tourism, frozen but reassuring, domestic but entertaining.”

James Carl, Original Six (1998)
James Carl is another Canadian artist with an interest in exploring hockey, a Toronto-based sculptor who has based his practice around the use of the readymade and a wide variety of consumer objects. In 1998, he took a conceptual approach to aspects of hockey’s place in North American culture and created an installation titled Original Six (see image above). The piece features three foot tall replicas of Bic lighters meant to represent the first teams to form the National Hockey League. They are carefully positioned on platforms surrounding a loose replica of the Stanley Cup, bringing to mind the codes and signifiers of the game itself, the fan base, the players, and the city’s representing the hockey teams. This work was included in a 2008 exhibition that traveled Canada titled ARENA: Road Game which highlighted hockey related art works from around the world. For more information, see this link for a great video featuring several of the artists included in the show. 

Kurt Kauper, Shaving Before the Game (2007)
Kurt Kauper rounds out our mini survey, an American artist who has caused a bit more controversy with his interest in hockey culture. A native of Boston, who grew up as a fan of the Bruins and experiencing the passion and obsessive interest in the franchise’s history, Kauper created an exhibition in 2007 titled “Everybody knew Canadians were the best hockey players” after coming across a video that documented the now infamous series of games which pitted Soviet amateur players against professional Canadian players. The tensions and national anxieties that played out throughout that series in the 1970’s reminded Kauper of similar national tensions brewing within post-2001 America and the rest of the world. Looking closer, the series includes paintings such as Derek and Shaving Before the Game—eight foot tall portraits that evoke the visual vocabulary of traditional masters (such as Jacques Louis David) who pictured heroic posturing of epic proportions. In interviews Kauper has talked about his childhood obsession with Bobby Orr (pictured in the shaving portrait) and the transgressive nature of depicting the male nude as a contemporary and still living subject.

Kurt Kauper, Derek (2007)
At the broadest level, all three artists ask us to think about how themes commonly associated with hockey intersect with larger questions of national identity, sign-making, and the representation of heroism. Closer to home, we can ponder why and how the game of hockey retains such potency for such a wide cross section of individuals. Either way, I still find it hard to detach into an academic stance for too long. I still want the Canucks to win. (Go Canucks GO!).