Craig LeBlanc’s Sports Illustrated

Craig LeBlanc’s art subtly critiques the world of professional sport. His examination of amateur and professional sport and his investigation of sport’s simple origins in play are profound comments on the social and cultural importance of these activities. Huge amounts of information (television, radio, print and electronic media) are produced and consumed daily as part of a structure that supports the broadcast sport industry. Most of this information is of the “who won the game last night and why” variety and it does not generally invite critical cultural analysis. For this, we need artists like LeBlanc. With room filling installation works and insightfully modified playground and sports equipment, LeBlanc invites viewers to consider the depth and complexity of our societal fascination with play and sport, at its simplest and as the mass media consumer driven spectacle it has become.

Craig LeBlanc’s 2001 Harcourt House Gallery exhibition Taking the FUN out of FUNction transposed the playground of our childhood to a third-floor art gallery but something wasn’t quite right. The slide didn’t slide because there wasn’t enough of an incline; it was almost horizontal. The swings swung but they were too close to the ground to be usable. The teeter–totter moved but it was far too short for any real “teetering”. The most complete expression of LeBlanc’s non-functioning playground equipment was included in the 2002 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art – a full sized merry-go-round partially embedded in a wall. Like all of LeBlanc’s work, Merry-Go-Round is immaculately constructed and again completely functional; a light push starts it spinning. If, however, you are foolhardy enough to get on the merry-go-round (and if you happen to be more than about a meter tall) you will certainly collide with the wall. LeBlanc makes the equipment functional but nothing works quite the way it should in his playground.

Neighborhood playgrounds were once the hub of a vibrant children’s street culture. Leblanc’s art reminds us that urban sprawl and related problems specific to raising children in the late 20th /early 21st century have changed this dynamic. In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby comments that, past a certain age, playground equipment is of use only as a sort of ironic distraction from the real purpose of the neighborhood playground -- social interaction (or meeting girls, in the case of Hornby’s protagonist). Hornby describes a subversion of playground equipment that will sound familiar to most people who went to playgrounds to undertake those things you can only do with a certain lack of “appropriate adult supervision”.

…we only allowed ourselves to play on the swings and the round-about and the other kids’ stuff rusting away in there if we could do it with a sort of self-conscious ironic detachment. This involved either an imitation of absentmindedness (whistling, or chatting, or fiddling with a cigarette stub or a box of matches usually did the trick) or a flirtation with danger, so we jumped off the swings when they could go no higher, jumped on the roundabout when it would go no faster, hung on the end of the swingboat until it reached an almost vertical position. If you could somehow prove that these childish entertainments had the potential to dash your brains out, then playing on them became OK somehow.

LeBlanc’s subtle transformations of playground equipment are comparable to children’s playground improvisations so well described by Hornby. Both are reminders that, despite good intentions, the neighborhood playground and children’s pastimes there were never exactly what adults planned or imagined.

LeBlanc’s recent work makes a transition familiar to many North Americans – from the childhood playground to the school gym, neighborhood hockey arena or baseball diamond; sites where the introduction to adolescent team sports can blossom into full fledged, life long obsession. Some sports fans will quote chapter and verse of the Oilers win/loss record, others might eloquently discuss more esoteric sports trivia like the recent Red Sox pennant victory and the “Curse of the Bambino” but few sports fans are as genuinely introspective as LeBlanc about our society’s complex relationship with play and sport. 

In two recent exhibitions,  LeBlanc transforms sports equipment with the same subversive skill he applied to the playground. Collectively entitled I Don’t Play, this series included wristbands, golf towels, baseball caps, headbands, hockey pucks and badges all adorned with the fictitious I Don’t Play or IDP logo. LeBlanc’s IDP is a shrewd parody of overtly commercial logos and “just do it”-type slogans so ubiquitous in broadcast sports. LeBlanc’s IDP hockey puck along with another piece, a hockey stick with the text “please use me” router cut through the blade might have foreshadowed the recent NHL lockout. Even without the lockout, these works remind us of the unbridled commercialism, unrealistic financial rewards and fabricated celebrity of broadcast sport. One could easily complete LeBlanc’s “I don’t play” with the phrase “unless there’s money in it”. LeBlanc reveals the complete integration of professional broadcast sports with marketing and advertising (with the player as product).

LeBlanc’s work stands in stark contrast to the positive qualities we naively and consistently attribute to sports (e.g. that sport is “character building”, a pure and perfect synthesis of mental and physical agility and ability, that professional men’s sports are the realm of masculine virility where the ideal of teamwork is put into practice etc.) LeBlanc suggests that the stereotypes bear little resemblance to the media spectacle of contemporary broadcast sports. His most critical assessment of this phenomenon is embodied in the Harcourt House Exhibition Standing O.  This room-sized installation presented empty sports bleachers across from a mirrored wall, effectively creating the illusion of a stadium-like enclosure. At certain locations in the gallery, viewers walking between the bleachers and mirror image bleachers trigger a spot light and audio track of applause. With little effort, viewers become egocentric sports stars but are left to experience their standing ovation with other bewildered viewers or, more likely, alone in the spotlight looking at empty bleachers or their own reflection in the midst of this desolate “stadium”. LeBlanc reminds us that the fabrication of sports celebrities (like other pop culture celebrities) has little to do with actual achievement and even less to do with our sports stereotypes.

Standing O may be LeBlanc’s most unflattering appraisal of the hollowness of contemporary broadcast sport but it is eloquently complimented by an important piece from his recent Harcourt House exhibition Work from The Sophomore Jinx.   In Home, LeBlanc superimposes text from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces on a regulation baseball home plate (an irregular rubber pentagon with five steel spikes on the bottom). The text reads: “the hero must leave his comfortable known world, strike out on his own to find adventure, and then return home a changed man.”  LeBlanc starts with deceptively simple puns (“strike out” and “return home”) but asks us to look further. In the run from one canvas bag to another and back to this rubber pentagon, in the dash across the finish line or the battle for midcourt we find, not just  metaphors for life’s struggle but heroic acts and, as a society, we celebrate the heroes. We look for heroes in professional sports and consequently we find them or, perhaps more accurately, we create them.

Like much in our society, the nature of sports star hero worship has changed. Our interest in Vancouver Canucks right wing Todd Bertuzzi (who faced possible jail time for on ice violence) and LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant (who was charged with sexual assault) are merely the most recent examples of our prurient curiosity about the sports celebrities that we have created. Lou Gehrig’s 1934 Breakfast of Champion’s Wheaties Box has mutated. Seventy years later, infamous Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and 70’s Pittsburg Steelers star quarterback Terry Bradshaw are flogging male impotence drugs and antidepressants. Sports columnist, Jim Moore, writes about the apparent incongruity of “Iron” Mike Ditka’s endorsement of Levitra. Though he seems unaware of it, Moore is actually writing about a conflict between reality, old sports stereotypes and new sports marketing spin. LeBlanc’s response to the hyper-masculinized world of coaches or star athletes who are (to quote Moore on Ditka) “gruff, macho, virile, tough … beer swilling, talking of conquests – on and off the field” is the simple and understated piece Slump. LeBlanc modified a regulation wooden baseball bat by pressure bending it at a right angle. The base is attached to the wall and the head of the now useless bat points at the ground impotently – a reminder of an individual athlete’s dry spell (on or off the field) or, more significantly, a memorial for something lost in a world of professional sports where a 30-second Super Bowl commercial spot for Levitra or Cialis can cost $2.3 million.

Making It Like a Man exhibition curator David Garneau suggests that LeBlanc’s sports related works reflect a “sense of loss for sports sullied by commercial interests” and a kind of “yearning for the camaraderie, sense of personal and collective success and skill building one can experience directly in the pre-capitalized, boyish, pre-manly world of amateur athletics”. Garneau is specifically referring to LeBlanc’s IDP series but this longing for the idealized purity of play and sport is most poignantly revealed in two of LeBlanc’s most recent works from The Sophomore Jinx. The First 1000 Pitches and The First 1000 Shots are two stretched and primed canvases. This is how one might prepare a canvas for painting; however, no paint of charcoal was put to these pristine surfaces. Rather, they bear the mud and scuff traces of 1000 baseball throws and 1000 hockey slap shots – the product of LeBlanc’s simple and solitary sports activity with a hard ball, rubber hockey puck and hockey stick.   

LeBlanc uses art work to investigate the deeper meaning of play and sport. His unusable playground equipment, empty bleachers and ingeniously altered sports equipment subtly reveal our society’s profound relationship with sport and play. Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) may be the Olympic motto, an invocation so simple, broad and idealistic as to inspire all athletes, but it has little to do with the reality of current sport culture. LeBlanc’s art is a potent reminder of everything left out of the Olympic motto or perhaps permanently lost. 

By Blair Brennan


The Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art 2002, The Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta (June 2002) and Nickle Arts Museum, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta (September 2002)

Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity, Riverhead Books, NewYork: 1995

Making it Like a Man: Masculinities in Canadian Arts and Culture, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan (June 2004) and Works from The Sophomore Jinx, Harcourt House Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta (October 2004)


Standing O, Harcourt House Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta (October 2003) and, to some extent, this theme was first addressed by LeBlanc in an earlier work, Le Spectacle, Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia (March 1997)


This is entirely consistent with Joseph Campbell’s theories. His writing reveals our cross cultural and timeless need for heroes and their stories, for myths and legends and the sacred spaces that accompany them.


The fact that a non-sports fan like me would know all of this (with very minimal research) is ample proof of the pervasiveness of sport culture in general popular culture.


Moore, Jim. Go 2 Guy: Another Side of Mike Ditka, Thursday, January 29, 2004 
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (available online at 


Garneau, David. Making it Like a Man!, photocopied curatorial essay accompanying the exhibition Making it Like a Man: Masculinities in Canadian Arts and Culture, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan (June 2004)