by Erica Ciccarone
Erica Ciccarone is an independent writer. She holds an M.F.A. from the New School in Creative Writing. She blogs about art at nycnash.com.
“You can have serious work that’s hidden in the context of something playful.”
One wall of Brandon Donahue’s studio is lined with basketballs, dozens of them, of varying size and color. Some are still fresh and pop with color; others are faded and soft. Some bear messages in Sharpie marker, the loopy handwriting shouting out a name. They carry other names, too: Spalding, Wilson, Rawlings. Donahue has been scavenging again at outdoor courts and in parks, collecting material for art making.
He slices them open, through leather and rubber, and arranges them into wall hangings, four feet in diameter, that resemble flowers. The Basketball Blooms, as he calls them, are based on the sacred geometry of the mandala. A symbolic picture of the universe, the mandala is associated with belonging and harmony. The basketballs each carry a history: the number of games they’ve seen, the puddles, the pavement, the hands through which they’ve passed.
“They’ve been touched by so many people,” he says. “It’s communal.”
Donahue is intentional in his repurposing. Basketball means a lot to him, and he taps it for cultural and aesthetic significance. He also collects hubcaps, fallen street signs, discarded pennant strings, chicken bones—stuff of his own Southern landscape. Like hip hop’s characteristic sampling of beats, he paints, airbrushes, vacuum forms, and assembles these items into something that transcends their original purpose without abandoning it.His work speaks in a vernacular that is influenced by hip hop and folk art alike. Donahue’s first love isn’t assemblage or sculpture, but airbrushing. His work is anchored in graffiti traditions with slick fonts and bold colors, while his M.F.A. and extensive fine art experience drive him to elevate the form. He’s quick to differentiate street art from graffiti; street art is legal, he says, sanctioned, commissioned, but he grew up painting with graffiti artists and customizing T-shirts, sneakers, skateboards, and cars.
Now a professor at Tennessee State University, his alma mater, Donahue does commissions around the state. He has painted murals in Printers Alley, a house off I-65, the Chilhowee Park entrance in Knoxville, and the historic Sterick building in his hometown, Memphis, among many others.
The exactitude of airbrushing and the slapdash quality of assemblage create a wonderful sense of tension in Donahue’s work that shows his versatility. The sculptural work from scavenged materials is somewhat liberated from rules of perspective and proportion. It feels as if the artist is letting go of control, playing for the sake of play, but as he says, “You can have serious work that’s hidden in the context of something playful.”
In November, he transformed Seed Space’s gallery into a half-court basketball gym in his solo show FOUL SHOT. Donahue constructed goal backboards from bamboo that he spray painted vibrant colors, employed spray-painted toilet seats as makeshift rims, and wove nets from shoelaces. He hung these on three of the gallery walls and marked the floor with requisite lines. The line that interests him most is the free-throw line. On a true court, it’s the one 15 feet from the basket, where players stand to take unopposed shots after being fouled.
“That’s an important shot,” Donahue says. “That’s where the most pressure is. There’s no one there to block your shot. It’s just you.” The practice of an athlete is not unlike that of the studio artist. While both arenas include plenty of competition, the athlete’s and the artist’s main adversary is himself.
Rachel Bubis, the curator of Seed Space, gave Donahue free range, but even working within the gallery’s scarce parameters didn’t come easy. “The gallery itself can serve a great purpose,” Donahue says, “but sometimes you need to leave the gallery to get your message across . . . That’s why I do street art—it’s art for the public.”
Donahue says he’s always been anti-canvas, anti-square, and he connects this aversion to white, male-dominated art history that feels far from his experience. “It was like a sophisticated, superior sport . . . If I were to go back to those times, I wouldn’t fit into that history.” This is perhaps the cord that makes Donahue’s work so powerful. An excellent, affecting gallery exhibition touches only so many people, usually a small sector of art world elite. The gallery of the city, however, is available to all. It speaks in a language that everyday people understand and to which they respond.
Standing in the middle of FOUL SHOT before the center goal, with three Basketball Blooms at your back, you can feel the tension between the white box of the gallery and the world outside, both hungry for the transformations ignited by art and basketball.