A Man’s Sole: Art and Iconography of Sneakers

“Our manhood was defined by our acquisition.”
(The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison)

My first pair of “expensive” basketball shoes came right before my eighth birthday. It was near the tail end of my family’s annual back-to-school shopping binge. I remember I sat in Sears holding a silent protest until my father finally caved in and bought me the sneakers I wanted. The objects of my desire were the original Larry Johnson Converse Aero Jams. By that time, sneaker ads were everywhere from television commercials to bus stops. I can even distinctly remember being given free Converse book covers at my elementary school. In the shoe commercial spots, Larry Johnson—a 6’7”, 250-pound NBA power forward—dresses up as an old lady named “Grand Mama” and terrorizes would-be basketball players on a street court. I would later watch him save Steve Urkel from a group of vicious street-ballers in an episode of Family Matters. It didn’t matter whether he was dressed in an official NBA uniform or a flowery dress with shoulder pads – as long as he had on the Aero Jams, he could not be defeated.

Although the marketing strategy should probably be credited for my overwhelming need to have those shoes, my first glimpse of them in person could best be described as an encounter with the sublime. Even as a third grader I couldn’t help but be drawn by the design of the shoe. The black synthetic suede of the upper created a deep silhouette image. The bright teal, rubber outsole and stitching emanated from the depths of blackness to form the logo and message: CONS. Last was the React Juice under its heel. I became obsessed with the idea of React Juice’s purpose: the cadmium yellow translucency of it was entrancing; the glow of the color itself seemed to pulsate and added movement to an otherwise static shoe. I had inexplicable feeling that when one put on the shoe, it would take on a life of its own.

To this day, I have no idea what React Juice was or is. My only guess now is that it was simply some kind of rubbery, yellow plastic covering the heel. Twenty years later I still find myself staring at shoes as if I was interpreting a landscape painting by Thomas Cole. Much like those 18th century landscape paintings, sneakers have the ability to teach one about the way a portion of society views itself. Nike’s Foamposite and Flightposite debuted at the turn of the century leading up to the Y2K bug. Artists were compelled to conceptualize their own views of a dystopian future heading into a new century. The shoes themselves are very futuristic looking, relying on metallic colors and celestial-like form. Each shoe is casted almost entirely out of a mold, departing from the stitched, fabric shoes that came before it. Another example is any pair of Air Jordans. The designers of his shoes typically set out to create a product that is an embodiment of the shoes’ namesake. Many of his signature models employ the use of natural, dark leathers; sleek animal-like silhouettes; and springy cushioning which, in a way, mimic Michael Jordan’s own tall, dark, athletic, sinewy figure. With Michael Jordan being the pinnacle of black male commercial success in a lot of ways, his Air Jordan shoes mirror society’s acceptance of black male sexuality as an acceptable commodity.

Sneaker enthusiasts, like myself, categorize themselves between two groups: shoe collectors and “sneakerheads”. A shoe collector is someone who collects shoes and speculates on the future value of them. They typically do not wear them with the fear that they will lose their value. There is a rush in obtaining the most inaccessible of shoes, thereby, cornering the market. A sneakerhead, however, is anyone who goes through, sometimes, extreme lengths to purchase the most exclusive shoe they can find in order to “break necks” or grab the attention of their peers. Oftentimes, these sneaker enthusiasts have a very nostalgic relationship to the shoes themselves. They ardently offer up the stories of their first sneakers as if reminiscing a lost love. I probably fall within the class of sneakerhead.

In fact, a vast majority of young men growing between the 80’s and early 90’s would categorize themselves as “sneakerheads.” The rise of sneakerheads coincided with Reaganomics and the growth of hip hop. The focus on government subsidies of corporations coupled with decrease public funding to school and after-school programs, lead to people in lower income brackets seeking new outlets for creativity and leisure. Hip-hop, which includes everything from music to graffiti and fashion, was a direct result of young people inventing a freedom of art and enterprising.

In an ongoing piece titled, “An Artist’s Shoes,” I attempt to connect the dots between basketball sneakers as both a hobbyist commodity and an art object. The piece consists of over 100 oil paintings of shoes forming a large grid —mimicking the walls of a sneaker store. The piece places the art collector in the place of the shoe collector, both reveling and navigating the different styles in terms of nostalgia and design. Oil painting itself has a history of recording possessions in what we call the still life. The first still-lifes can be dated back to the 1600’s when the growing merchant class in Europe were finally able to afford paintings and other commodities as an expression of wealth. Patrons, particularly in the Netherlands, would hang commissioned pieces of their favorite belonging on the walls of their house seeking to “break necks” of visitors and travelers. Artists continue this practice, most interestingly, through daily painting. Skilled painters – typically female – take to painting small still-lifes daily, then selling them at accessible prices to members of the same professional working class. This new market circumvents a rich, white male-dominated art world while also engaging a market largely unseen by it. My paintings of sneakers use a similar practice, in an attempt to engage in a conversation with young, low-income people who grew up in the hip-hop era and the art world that often leaves them out.

In a strange way, painting sneakers puts me above consuming because it fulfills and replaces my desire to actually own them. Creating art gives me a sense of power that I might not feel in other spaces, allowing me to disengage from the world and turn inward where ideas are expressed in the form of paint strokes instead of being articulated in words. It is a meditative, self-assuring practice that I have been practicing since I was really young and remains my mode of self-reassurance and interpretation. Painting sneakers, more specifically, allows me to respond to the material of the shoes viscerally, while interacting with the substance of the paint. I will never get over the defiant feeling I get painting patent leather and translucent rubber in a medium originally intended to paint flesh tones and nature. By working with this realm of ideas, I hope to question the true function of art when those it is often marketed to are rendered invisible by it. 

See more of Philippe’s work here.