News of this exciting new exhibition and event series which opens tomorrow, January 13th, just in from our friend and curator of this event Lisa Kereszi; following is the press release and, event schedule, and curator's statement:
The Yale School of Art (YSA) launches its 2015 season at the 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery with “Side Show,” an exhibition devoted to the “believe it or not” world of the American sideshow, in which display of the abnormal and bizarre was the focus of the event. On view Jan. 13–Mar. 20, 2015, the exhibition is free and open to the public Tuesdays–Sundays from noon to 6 p.m.
“Side Show” presents more than 70 works by 29 artists — including Diane Arbus, Otto Dix, John Waters, and Riva Lehrer — ranging from the mid-18th century to the present. The show includes original sideshow banners, props, promotional cards, photographs, historical ephemera, and works of art inspired by circus and carnival culture from the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), Yale Medical School Library, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the International Center of Photography, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and private collections.
“Side Show” joins an array of television programs, Broadway shows, and books in recent popular culture highlighting showmanship of the exceptional. While some works in the exhibition celebrate the offbeat, taboo world of the sideshow, others explore issues ranging from racism to misogyny to politics to a society obsessed with superficial values, as well as the attitude toward those with disabilities.
Traditionally, a sideshow was a secondary production associated with a mainstream carnival or circus, offering spectacles in a makeshift tent. The popular “10-in-1” format included 10 acts in one show for one ticket. The sideshows would feature people born with physical oddities, such as bearded women or conjoined twins; death-defying acts such as sword-swallowing or fire-breathing; and exotic animals. A final, extra act not advertisedon the outside, called the “blow-off,” could be viewed for an additional fee.
“Side Show” ends with a wink and a nod to the “blow-off.” After seeing the main show, visitors can walk down a side gallery to view historical sideshow banners. They are confronted with a velvet curtain and a sign warning Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications of the graphic nature of what they are about to see. According to exhibition organizers, the final “ding,” to use
carny lingo, it is not to be missed.
A complementary exhibition, “Teratology: The Science and History of Human Monstrosity,” will be on view Jan. 22–May 31 at Yale’s Cushing Medical Library, which is lending three works to the School of Art show. Located at 333 Cedar St., the library’s exhibition includes books, prints, and broadsides. It is also free and open to the public.
In addition, an exhibition opening in January at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut — “Coney Island: Visions of America’s Dreamland, 1861-2008” — has been organized by Robin Jaffee Frank, former YUAG senior associate curator of American paintings and sculpture. Kereszi, who consulted on the Wadsworth exhibition, will have her own work featured in the Hartford show.
“Side Show” has been made possible at Yale by an anonymous donor, with support from the Hayden Fund for Arts and Ideas. An opening lecture by Ricky Jay, magician, collector, and historian, will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at 36 Edgewood Ave., Rm. 204. The talk will be followed by a reception at the 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery 6:30–8:30 p.m., with sideshow acts Johnny Fox and The Great Fredini, as well as a performancepiece by Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz.
Additional programs — all free and open to the public — include a panel discussion on Monday, Jan. 26 at 6:30 p.m. at 36 Edgewood Ave., Rm. 204, with performer Todd Robbins, sideshow impresario Dick Zigun ’78 M.F.A., performer and director Jennifer Miller, and artists Riva Lehrer and Pamela Joseph. The discussion will follow a performance by Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore at 5:30 p.m, sponsored by the Traphagen Alumni Speakers Series and Yale Office of Student Affairs.
The following programs are free and open to the public.
Tuesday, January 13
5:30 p.m. Exhibition opening lecture
Ricky Jay, magician, collector, and historian
36 Edgewood Avenue
6:30 p.m. Reception
Featuring sideshow acts Johnny Fox and The Great Fredini, as well as a performance piece by Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz.
32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery
Tuesday, January 20
6:30 p.m. Lecture
Chris DAZE Ellis, Yale University Art Gallery artist-in-residence
1156 Chapel Street
Monday, January 26
5:30 p.m. Performance
Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore
36 Edgewood Avenue
Sponsored by the Traphagen Alumni Speakers Series and Yale Office of Student Affairs.
6:30 p.m. Panel discussion
Performer Todd Robbins, side show impresario Dick Zigun YSD ’78, performer and director Jennifer Miller, and artists Riva Lehrer and Pamela Joseph.
36 Edgewood Avenue
Sponsored by the Hayden Fund for Arts and Ideas.
Tuesday, February 3, 12:30 p.m.
12:30 p.m. Lecture
Jane Dickson, artist
353 Crown Street
Friday, February 13, 12:30 p.m.
12:30 p.m. Lecture
Kathleen Maher, executive director and curator of the at the Barnum Museum
1156 Chapel Street
Thursday, February 19
1:30 p.m. Poynter Fellowship Lecture in Journalism
Mark Dery, cultural critic
1156 Chapel Street
Tuesday, March 3
6:30 p.m. Poynter Fellowship Lecture in Journalism
James Taylor, historian and publisher of “Shocked and Amazed”
1156 Chapel Street
2 p.m. Poynter Fellowship Lecture in Journalism
Susan Meiselas, photographer
1156 Chapel Street
Curator's statement: “Side Show” is an exhibition investigating the intersection of fine art and the historical popular entertainment world of the carnival sideshow — in which the bodily display of the abnormal, human or animal, is the focus of each piece. Sideshows existed just beyond or to the side of the mainstream carnival or circus midway, offering a spectacle of oddity in a makeshift tent. It would feature human oddities, “freaks,” such as bearded women, the fat lady, the skeleton man, the conjoined, or “Siamese” twins, as well as dangerous-seeming acts like fire-handling and nasal nail-hammering. They were a fad of popular entertainment for the masses looking to forget their worries and cares and fears and problems, not really unlike the proliferation of reality television today, your Honey Boo-Boos and your various “Housewives,” or the afternoon talk shows of the eighties and nineties, like Sally Jesse and Geraldo.
The impetus for the show is the concurrent early 2015 exhibition at the Wadsworth Athaneum, “Coney Island: Visions of America’s Dreamland, 1861–2008,” spearheaded by former Yale University Art Gallery senior associate curator of American paintings and sculpture, Robin Jaffee Frank. Our show stands as a literal side-show, in a way, to that main show, which I consulted on and in which I have work included. Sideshows were a part of Coney Island, but they existed all over the country, and globe, travelling from town to town.
Artists seem to have always been interested in and entranced by the depiction of the “other,” the outsider, the oddity in nature, as can be evidenced by collections of curiosities assembled over centuries all over the world. Living curiosities have also been a part of these private and public museums, most popularly known in America thanks to local Connecticut hero, P.T. Barnum. Why do many artists feel an attraction to these images and objects, which are sometimes disturbing and depictions of unethical treatment of human beings, animals, and corpses? Is it because it is forbidden? Is there some empathetic response to being the outsider in society? Painter David Carbone says that he sees “archetypal images of otherness...[as] really images of our secret selves.”
Diane Arbus, one of the artists represented in the show via a loan of a suite of photographs from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, famously said, “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot.... There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” (New Yorker, April 8, 2014) Arbus, being from a bit of an aristocratic Upper West Side furrier family, committed suicide after a bout with health problems and depression. Her demons were her trauma; was this why she was attracted to this underworld as her subjects?
In the show, some artists seem to celebrate this offbeat, taboo world, but others, like Arnold Mesches, Chris Daze, Roger Brown, Pamela Joseph and Toni Lee Sangastiano, use the conceits of sideshow signage and imagery to critique issues ranging from racism to misogyny and objectification of women to politics and a society obsessed with superficial values. Roger Brown, whose piece in the show proclaims “Motto for the Masses,” is quoted as saying, “As an artist your role is to sit back and observe objectively. If you become part of the freak show, you’re dead. You’re just another whore. The real job of an artist is to use what’s going on, not be used by it.” (Dialog magazine, 1987) His painting in the show uses the sideshow banner advertising style to make a political statement. In Arnold Mesches’ piece, “It’s a Circus 3,” he uses the carnivalesque to “recreate the sense of utter instability and sheer insanity” he finds in American society.
Those issues of race, ethnicity and gender will be considered, as well as the attitude towards those with disabilities. Although some acts in a traditional 10-in-1 sideshow (10 acts in one show for one ticket, that run continuously all day and evening long, so an audience member could walk in and out at any point, and still catch the whole show) are firebreathers, glass eaters and sword swallowers, defying nature, many were also people with some physical oddity that they were born into that made them fodder for display. It is argued that although some of these performers were, indeed, practically enslaved, many had self-agency, and the circus or sideshow gave them an opportunity to contribute to a family’s expenses; otherwise, many of them could not otherwise work for a living.
The artist Riva Lehrer, in a lecture titled “Jarred,” talks about her experience as a person born with spina bifida confronting a dead baby in a jar at an anatomy museum, and realizing she was, in a way, quite possibly seeing herself, in another reality, put on display for gawkers, rather than buried and grieved over. Her immaculate drawing of performance artist Mat Fraser (who now stars in TV’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show”) is included in the show, and is a full-frontal male nude of a person born with a birth defect caused by his mother’s use of Thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug now banned from use. In his sideshow act, he pays tribute to “Sealo,” a performer who has the same deformity as him. He is a self-proclaimed disability activist, with a punk rock edge whose work transcended sideshow performance and acting to performance art.
Fraser is a good example in one body of the intersection of high and low culture, a theme this exhibition rests upon. I wanted to see what would happen if we took actual low-brow ephemera from the sideshow era – a feegee mermaid (a vernacular sculpture made from fish and monkey parts), a two-headed calf, sideshow banners meant to hang in a line as cheap and loud advertising, pitch cards or giant’s rings sold by the acts for a quarter her and there — and put these items up against unrefuted high art, such as paintings by the contemporary artists mentioned previously, as well as by Joe Coleman, Susan Meiselas, and Jane Dickson.
The show ends with a wink and a nod to an integral piece of the 10-in-1, the “blow-off.” For this, after the visitor views the main show, and then walks down the side gallery to view the historical sideshow banners, he or she will be confronted with a velvet curtain and a sign warning of the graphic nature of what you are about to see. It would be at this point that the emcee would collect another dollar from each of his marks to enter the last display. At Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore, created by YSD ’78 alum, Dick Zigun, the blow-off is a cheap videotape of a woman giving birth. As a knowing nod to Zigun’s knowing nod, I chose to include the piece, “Birth Control,” by John Waters, a series of film stills of childbirth, as our own blow-off, or “ding,” in carny lingo.
Performer and collector Todd Robbins sums it up well, by saying, “The sideshow celebrates the human spirit’s ability to overcome any and all challenges, and the acts performed there prove that nothing is impossible.”
--Lisa Kereszi ’00 MFA, Yale School of Art critic and exhibition curator