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How Bizarre, How Bizarre

Art: 'Roadium' a tribute to circus tradition, a lament for the demise of the 'freak show.'

September 17, 1997|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — A new show at Cal State Fullerton has turned the school's Main Art Gallery into a three-ring circus. Make that a four-ring circus.

"The Roadium" features: 1) circus scene paintings; 2) sculptures of mutants; 3) vintage puppets; and 4) historical material from circus archives.

And in keeping with the theme of the exhibition, said organizer Mike McGee: "We've built the space into a fun house." The layout includes fun-house mirrors, walls at odd angles and a few dark recesses.

Co-organizer Phyllis Davidson named the show for a dilapidated Gardena drive-in with a tattered sign that McGee felt was fitting:

"It offered the kind of carnival/circus moniker that is often attached to obscure colorful experiences," McGee says in his foreword-to-the-show catalog. "This drive-in and the circus have much in common: Both provided audiences . . . with flights of fantasy in the shadows of brightly lighted entertainment; both are undoubtedly haunted with abiding memories of vivid personal events; and both seem to have fallen victim to the future."

Tying the exhibition together are Davidson's characteristic portraits of its other principals, whom she met while researching her 16-painting series. Gerald Heffernon is shown with his sculpture of a two-headed mastiff (from the collection of actor Paul Mazursky), Alan Cook with his puppets, archivists Tim and Gigi Tegge in clown guise.

Davidson's fascination with circuses, carnivals and sideshows significantly predates the series.

"It started very early," said Davidson, 58, of Los Angeles. "I like odd things. I'm attracted to the unusual and excessive, not just the circus. Why? It would take a psychiatrist to unravel that one."

Her "Roadium" paintings celebrate geeks and sideshow attractions--dwarfs, quadruple-breasted women, reptile men--and often revel in their threatening sexuality.

The exhibition, which runs through Oct. 9, is both a tribute to the people who maintain circus traditions in the age of broadcast media, and a lament for the loss of such things as the "freak shows." The demise of those shows indirectly led Davidson to Heffernon: By the time she began her series, Heffernon's "hum-an-imal" sculptures were the closest thing she could find to live models.

"I couldn't find any real freaks, and I didn't want to paint freaks from the past," Davidson said. "When I saw Gerald's two-headed dog, I thought that was perfect."

Also perfect for the show were the sculptures themselves, quirky hybrids such as Heffernon's supremely creepy "Chickman."

Davidson likewise bemoans the phasing out of the tent shows that once crisscrossed America, though she recently attended a classic circus mounted by the Sacramento-based "almost world-famous" Swan Brothers.

"To watch those fellows putting that tent up, you realize what grueling work it is, and for very little money," Davidson said. "It's a lot like art, but grubbier. My husband says I like it because it's the only thing lower on the food chain I can find." Davidson isn't quite on the bottom-most rung: Her paintings sell for $4,000 to $9,000.

In her collaboration with McGee, Davidson wanted to combine painting and sculpture with folkloric and historical approaches.

She is a longtime friend of Cook's, who has collected more than 2,000 19th- and 20th century puppets since the 1930s; among those displayed are several used on TV's "Howdy Doody Time."

Tim Tegge's father had a circus, and, according to Davidson, many of the older circus performers are leaving their collections to Tegge and his Santa Ana-born wife, Gigi. (The couple live in Baraboo, Wis.) On display are promotional lithographs from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (1925-30), elaborate ringmaster tail coats, and long-legged costumes worn by fourth-generation stilt-walkers at their final performances last year.

In her show catalog essay, Meg Linton, curator of exhibitions at the University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, notes that in their heyday, sideshows were not just freak shows but also the place to show exotic inventions like photography and electricity--"the lightbulb before Edison had made it popular . . . motion pictures before theaters were widespread."

Though truly freakish "freak shows" have been resurrected in the '90s (e.g., the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and William Darke Freak Show Spectacular, both of which tour on the rock music circuit), people no longer look to mainstream circuses as a likely venue.

"Now they look to talk shows," quipped McGee.

He may not be so far off the mark, according to Davidson, who saw her last freak show at a circus four years ago.

"The freaks aren't in circuses any more because of human rights, so now they're on television," she said. "Those little girls who were attached, one trunk and two separate heads, they were on the cover of Life magazine, Sally Jesse Raphael, Geraldo. . . . Body piercing and tattooing"--also once the domain of freak shows, Davidson pointed out--"have become fashionable."

People continue to be attracted to, and in many cases validated by, "the other"--those markedly different from themselves.

"It's all the same thing. It hasn't gone away. It's rooted very deeply in the human psyche," she said. "It's just taken on a new form."

* "The Roadium" runs through Oct. 9 at the Cal State Fullerton Main Art Gallery, Visual Arts Center, State College Boulevard and Nutwood Avenue. Open noon-4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 3-7 p.m. Wednesday, and 2-5 p.m. Sunday. Suggested donation, $3. (714) 278-3471.

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