It’s not what you’d expect to see housed within the neoclassical architecture of Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. Ascend its curving staircase, the walls of which are adorned with gold-framed works of art from across the centuries, and at the summit you will see … erm, a zip-up Fila tracksuit top paired with some Lee jeans circa 1983.
This blue trackie sits alongside other prize pieces: Aquascutum scarves, Stone Island jackets, the odd hooded mannequin that looks like it might steal your dinner money. These treasures occupy the opening room of Art of the Terraces which, as you may have guessed, is not the Walker’s usual fare. Timed for the World Cup, it’s an exhibition that aims to tell the story of football casuals – the name given to a generation of fans who, inspired by the rival followers they encountered on European away days, ditched their flared cords and parkas and began dressing in the latest foreign labels.
Their influence on fashion helped turn athleisure wear into a gigantic global industry: before Liverpool and Manchester United fans started wearing Adidas Forest Hills trainers to games, trainers were only really seen on the track. But this is not simply an exhibition of retro sportswear. The casuals had a huge impact on arts and culture too, from former casuals-turned-artists such as Mark Leckey (whose 1999 video piece Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore mixes footage of Northern Soul dancers, football fans and ravers) to those who’ve been inspired indirectly (Ross Muir’s reimagining of Vincent van Gogh in Adidas three stripe).
“It’s not a story that’s been told in galleries before,” says Pauline Rushton, who led the project. “These people don’t see themselves reflected in galleries and might find one like ours intimidating. We’re hoping that it might attract them to visit us, and that they’ll stick around and see what else we do.”
Art of the Terraces kicks off with a series of paintings that recall the highs of following the game – and the lows, as Glen Williams’s Eight Bloody Nil attests. We see supporters in the rain, supporters cold and bored, and supporters throwing their hats in the air. What we don’t see, hardly ever, are footballers – and in many ways this is what makes the show work so well. It’s not a story of superstar signings but the grassroots support that really powers the game.
Peter O’Toole and Adam Gill, directors of Huddersfield’s Grammar Studio and two of the driving forces behind the exhibition, tell me that focusing solely on the fans was so important that they ended up turning down artworks from the likes of Keith Haring. “Just casually tossing out Picassos,” laughs O’Toole, who seems especially wide-eyed that their idea to tell the casuals story using art has somehow snowballed into a prestigious show at the Walker.
The show doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable elements of casuals culture. In one corner, a jet black predator-like figure looms. This is Penalty!, a 2006 sculpture made by Jamaican British artist Satch Hoyt from the leather tongues of Puma boots – so chosen because Puma was the brand worn by the African American athlete Tommie Smith. Alongside John Carlos, Smith gave the black power salute from the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Fifteen years after it was made, three of England’s black players suffered a torrent of abuse after missing penalties during the European Championship final against Italy.
In the exhibition’s final room is a magnificent tapestry of the terraces called Who Are Ya’? “It’s not the usual thing you’d expect to find in a gallery – a football hooligan tapestry,” grins its Lancastrian maker, Jamie Holman. The piece aims to show the link between the 19th-century story of the Lancashire mills and the great-grandchildren of those weavers who helped form the Football League. It asks questions about working-class identity and so-called “left behind” areas such as Blackburn where he works. “There are kids in Rome wearing Adidas Blackburn trainers,” he points out. “You hear all this stuff about left behind places. Well, football is now a diverse, multicultural, global affair, but the roots start in these unexpected places where nothing is meant to be happening.”
Holman acknowledges that football isn’t always an easy fit in a gallery. “Despite the changes to the game and global acceptance, football remains defiantly working-class, in the sense that it’s difficult to unpick those real dark histories from the game. Using materials from the same spaces where it started allows me to talk about the male aggression and violence without over-fetishising those elements. Quite literally, it softens the image.”
Despite this, football and art are far from the unlikely bedfellows they seem. The game’s presence in art can be traced back to at least the 16th century, when Pieter Bruegel the Elder let pig bladders be kicked around in his painting Children’s Games. Since then artists have attempted to capture the unique atmosphere of match days (as in LS Lowry’s Going to the Match, recently bought by Salford’s Lowry arts centre for £7.8m), honour its heroes (Andy Warhol’s portrait of Pelé) and even alter our way of seeing (René Magritte’s La Représentation).
Artists around the world have long been using it to talk about race and sexual identity. Kehinde Wiley painted several African icons of the sport, such as Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, while Eddie Peake’s 2012 performance piece Touch, in which a game of five-aside is performed with naked men, challenged how we view the close contact of intertwining bodies.
QPR fan Caroline Coon has spent over three decades using the game as a canvas on which she can explore gender. “In my Arena series paintings,” she says, “I try to rectify our unequal world by putting women and men in sport as equals, sharing in the primitive glamour of competition and play. I allude to gender fluidity that is a human truth.” This work seems especially relevant during Qatar. As she puts it: “Having a World Cup in a place where there is limited mixing of the sexes in public, where women are lawfully subjugated by men, was bound to cause trouble!”
In 2017 Hank Willis Thomas staged ideas-packed show The Beautiful Game in which, among other things, he recreated famous artworks by Matisse and Stuart Davis using football strips in order to critique the way capitalism had crept into every area of the game. “On one level,” he told me back then, “sport is about local competition. But it’s also about international competition and corporate competition. There’s a lot of stuff clashing.”
Eddy Frankel, Time Out London’s art and culture editor, is a man who knows all about the intersection of art and football. Seven years ago, he was reporting on an art auction while sneakily watching his team Spurs play Liverpool on his phone. After a while, he realised that a dozen or so other art lovers were hovering nearby, hoping to catch the action. “We all had a love for art,” he says, “and also a secret love for football that we were not allowed to tell anyone about. So I started researching.”
Alongside Jennie and Justin Hammond they set up Oof, the world’s first art space dedicated exclusively to the beautiful game. A visit there is quite an experience. Not only is it situated in a Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse, but it can only be entered by the public through the gift shop at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. According to surveys, 98% of their visitors have never been to a contemporary art show before. Introducing football fans in a deprived part of London to some fairly far-out modern artwork is what gets Frankel excited: “Football is supposed to be for everyone, so we like the idea that art can be as well.”
Showing during the World Cup are a series of mirrored works by Mark Titchner featuring football-inspired phrases (“Envy the success of others”). As you view them the room is filled with the noise of a crowd during a goal kick that has been stretched out over five minutes. It’s engaging but weird and slightly unsettling too. Frankel admits it can be tricky to engage some visitors who have limited experience of visiting contemporary art shows. He noticed things that seemed second nature to him – picking up handouts and reading wall texts – were being ignored by the majority of visitors, and so finding new ways to make the artworks accessible has been an interesting challenge.
Sometimes things don’t work out. Frankel laughs recalling the time he secured an exhibition of George Shaw paintings (“beautiful, we were so proud to have them”) only for a kid to walk in then straight out, saying to his mum “it’s just paintings”. But he says there are moments each day that reassure him that Oof is serving its purpose.
“People take pictures of every work of art, or come up to us with a million questions,” he says. “We have people who come back every match day to show their mates what they’ve seen. You’ll have parents desperate to get to their seats for kick off, but their full-kit 11-year-old insists on going from room to room and trying to find out as much as they can about every work.”
Balance is key. Often Oof will have a more accessible show running alongside a challenging one. Offsetting the Titchner works is a room of artist-designed football scarves. There are scarves by David Shrigley and Guerilla Girls, scarves of dogs peeing on police cars, scarves featuring real life incidents of streaking. Natasha Eves immortalises the (lack of) footballing skills of Matt Hancock for her contribution, whereas Jonathan Kelham realised that St Annes in Bristol didn’t actually have a football team so he invented one for his Super Duper St Annes FC scarf.
“Very little of this is actually about football,” notes Frankel, who has also filled an impressive 10 issues of Oof magazine with football-related art content. “It’s about female representation, religion, politics … and that’s when using football gets interesting. Football is a microcosm of society. Belief, passion, joy, ecstasy, bigotry, hatred, violence … all of that happens in this tiny bowl of 70,000 people or in the pub or at home. And artists can exploit that.”
Perhaps the most exciting artwork I see during my week-long odyssey into the world of art and football is not yet on display. Tucked away inside Oof is a tiny studio where an artist in residence is invited in to make work free of charge. Frankel lets me have a peek at what their current resident JJ Guest is getting up to: work that explores the game’s strange mix of homophobia and homoeroticism. There are giant aluminium panels featuring images from the pitch, but with the balls removed and turned into glory holes. Ceramic balls have been shaped to hang in pairs in a net. Best of all are some square bathroom tiles that, when sprayed with liquid, reveal a scene of footballers taking a communal bath together. As the picture emerges it feels oddly voyeuristic, like you’re viewing it from behind a misty shower screen, but Guest reportedly has grander plans for the tiles: to install them in a working urinal so that streams of urine will reveal this naked gathering of men.
Could they end up in the Spurs stadium toilets? It might sound far fetched, but the week I visited Oof, the gallery was preparing to beam one of Mark Titchner’s word art pieces – We Believe in Us – around the stadium hoardings at half time. “I just hope we’re not losing,” said Justin Hammond. Well they were losing: 2-1 to Leeds at the break. But by the final whistle it was 4-3 to Spurs – suggesting that art and football isn’t just a viable combination, but remarkably effective too.