On February 9, hundreds of thousands of Denver fans were lucky enough to see Super Bowl MVP Von Miller ride a fire engine much like you might ride a Bronco: legs splayed, a velvety cowboy hat firmly placed on your head.
Well, maybe the fuzzy hat wasn’t typical rugged attire. Indeed, it seemed incongruous that Miller would sport such soft material when his job is to pummel his opponents into the dirt. But maybe there was something intentionally subversive about the contrast: Miller’s fuzzy hat counters the image of football players suiting up in armor-like gear to bash each other in one of America’s most violent, hard-edged sports.
So while Miller may not show up for the opening of Skyhigh at Black Book Gallery on Saturday, February 13, he might appreciate artist Billy Kheel’s interest in the contrast between the rough-and-tumble world of sports and the silky-smooth world of fabrics. L.A.-based Kheel has earned a national reputation for his collages crafted out of felt, and in Skyhigh, he’s depicting famous athletes, including Miller, using his signature arts-and-crafts skills. The technical term for Kheel’s process is felt appliqué, because he stitches together layer after layer of felt to create a painting-like image.
With felt appliqué, Kheel says, he's “using a medium that’s associated with one thing and depicting a subject matter that’s associated with something else,” applying a process that may be “thought of as a...feminine craft” to the stereotypically masculine subject of sports, including football.
The artist admits that he's intrigued when people who are “not into sports figures at all, but are into felt appliqué and craft” like his work — in other words, when his sports imagery resonates with people who may not have made it to Tuesday’s parade.
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But if Kheel’s work contains an underlying critique of professional sports' stereotypical masculinity, it's simultaneously a defense of sports stars like Miller. Skyhigh focuses on "athletes who are almost tarred with this brush of being potheads," Kheel notes. "But when you look at the collection, it’s an amazing list of champions, All-Stars...the Super Bowl MVP,” and never mind Miller's six-game suspension in 2013 for suspected marijuana use. In this way, Kheel adds, the show explores “what’s legal, what’s illegal, what’s good for our health, and how that changes.”
Kheel has a personal interest in sports, having played football and lacrosse at Wesleyan University, where he also studied oil painting before graduating and moving to L.A. There his interest in playing sports diminished as Kheel focused on his art, seeking out fellow artists and classes that would help further his education. He first became interested in felt while pursuing a project involving sports pennants, which are fabricated from the material. Soon, Kheel remembers, he “saw these weird crossovers with this material with the world of athletics: Wait a second — there’s felt on the varsity jackets, felt on pennants.”
Which brings us back to Miller. If there is a tradition linking athletic pride and "feminine" fabrics, maybe his hat and his profession don't clash after all: Football, like other sports and the athletes who play them, is not a one-dimensional practice solely concerned with celebrating masculine endeavors. As Kheel notes, “If you kind of look into sports...it's never just about sports." For the artist, sports can act "as a prism back on society" — much like art itself.
Skyhigh opens with a free reception at 6 p.m. Saturday, February 13, at Black Book Gallery; the show runs through March 12.