A ‘Bull City Summer,’ in photos and film

Jun. 15, 2014 @ 02:42 PM

“Bull City Summer,” N.C Museum of Art, Raleigh, through Aug. 31.

“Bull City Summer,” Contemporary Art Museum, 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh,
through Aug. 31.

“Gabriel Dawe:  Plexus No. 25,” CAM, Raleigh, through Aug. 31.

Play ball! It is that moment when the teams have taken their positions on the field, the pitcher winds up and the game begins. It is summertime in Durham and for 72 days the Triple A Bulls will play at home to big crowds, folks who love baseball and all the fun and hoopla organized around it. 
The summer of 2014 has also turned into a Durham Bulls museum event. Last year, 10 photographers were commissioned to document the 72-game season. It was the 25th anniversary of the best all-time baseball movie ever, “Bull Durham.” It also marked a redo and upfit of the Goodmon Field in time for the 2014 season. The photographs, a documentary, a pair of short films and a wonderful catalog on the artists, their stories and their pictures add up to a love affair with the Bulls and the baseball culture. The show is so big it has been divided into two parts, one at the N.C. Museum of Art and the other at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh. The museums have about an equal number of photographs from each artist, but CAM has the films, and they add the finishing touch to the story the still shots begin.
Adam Sobsey, a professional writer who has covered the Bulls since 2009, is the lead writer for the catalog, and in his first essay he explains how a Triple A team works. The Bulls are the top farm team for the Tampa Bay Rays and, according to Sobsey, a holding pen for fringe big leaguers. Most have played in the majors, some for years, and now find themselves, as he writes, “in an up-and-down escalator between the fine wine of The Show and the small beer of Triple A.” Except for a few hot prospects, most hang around “designated for assignment.” They are called up and sent back down, sometimes several times in a season.
He continues, “The players are the paid property of the Tampa Bay Rays and most say they would rather play for the worst team in the majors than the best team in Triple A, but, in truth, it beats all the levels below it and is better than not playing baseball at all." The real fans know all this but the rest of us cheer every hit and run, yell out a player’s name and happily eat hotdogs and funnel cakes while enjoying a beautiful summer night.  We love the clowns, the mascot, the giveaways and the bull who snorts smoke pouring from its nostrils when the home team gets a run.
The photographs tell it all: Alec Soth’s lonely player in the outfield and Leah Sobsey’s portraits of dads and little girls, ladies with dogs and grandfathers with grandchildren.  The people waiting outside the ballpark fascinated Alex Harris, and so we have young girls on cellphones, Boy Scouts clustered around their dads and ordinary folks who will spend the evening watching baseball. 
There are Elizabeth Matheson’s spins: a bird’s-eye view of a tin of pretzels on a table and a player with balls stuffed into his back pockets. There are Frank Hunter’s shots of the field at twilight with its unbelievable skies. 
Hiroshi Watanabe focuses on more obscure things like the stitches of a baseball and the claustrophobic room where Christopher Ivy keeps score by hand. Kate Joyce records stuff in the cup holders, balls smashing against the back wall and lawn darts made by the guys in the dugout from bubblegum wrappers. 
At the North Carolina Art Museum, Hank Willis Thomas’ “A Futile Attempt to Take a Portrait of Everyone Who Attended the Last Regular Season Game, 2013” covers a complete wall and is composed of baseball card size  pictures; at CAM those pictures are part of the documentary. Interspersed throughout the book and the exhibition are Jeff Whetstone’s photographs of Adam Sobsey’s scorecards. Whetstone explains Sobsey’s cards, which are all about the duel between the pitcher and the batter and how he marks every pitch thrown. The cards are personal, without any regard for anyone else’s ability to read them, but it seems many fans still follow each game to this degree and even more know what these marks represent.
Ivan Weiss, a filmmaker and partner in the documentary production company, Rock Fish Stew Institute for Literature and Materials, filmed a full-length documentary of the process of how the photographers went about their job of recording each day. He shows us the photographers sitting, walking, watching and once in a while snapping a picture.  In the same gallery are Kate Joyce’s short films “Hit” and “Pitch.” They face each other with walking space between, and ducking down seemed necessary as I scurried between those fast moving images to watch the documentary.
The exhibition is all about the story of one minor league baseball team and, for me, a few of the photographs have caught its true essence. One is the single player way out in the field dwarfed by the viewpoint of the photographer; the player’s loneliness and the uncertainty of the game as a way to make a living is palpable. The others are the pictures of the fans; baseball is nothing without them. They are fat and thin, old and young, people of color, tattooed folks and people in wheelchairs, business types and young lovers, transplants from all over and down home Southerners. The diverse crowd includes every American type; the price is affordable and the scene is easy. It is what makes our ball team the pure American sport.
Standing watch over the Durham Bulls’ photographs at CAM, is “Plexus No. 25,” a brand new installation by Gabriel Dawe; it has taken over the entire upstairs. Using 62 miles of thread in colors that range from green to blue to yellow to orange, the artist created a giant “X.” It dominates the building but is as ephemeral as a shaft of light. We can walk around it and under it; we can look at it from outside. It defies description and like all art, whether photographs or sculpture, it must be experienced face to face.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.