Long before Desperate Housewives, Honey Boo Boo, or any of those viral BuzzFeed lists, there was the American side show. For the price of an entry ticket, carnival-goers could behold “freaks” like the the fat lady, the skeleton man, the bearded woman, and the conjoined, Siamese twins — performers who engrossed their audiences in ways the main acts never did.
Such “freaks” have also drawn the more empathetic gaze of Diane Arbus, Otto Dix, John Waters, Riva Lehrer (herself a sufferer of spina bifida), and others whose art investigates outsiders’ experiences. Fittingly enough, some of these works now form an illuminating companion piece of their own. Side Show at the Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Gallery accompanies the larger exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum.
Curated by Lisa Kereszi, the Yale show includes 50 works by 29 artists going back to the mid-18th century. While some of the works are celebratory, others offer a social critique of the kind of amoral appetite for entertainment and schadenfreude that made side shows possible in the first place. The exhibition also includes ephemera and souvenirs from the shows themselves — statues of Feejee mermaids or two-headed calves, sideshow banners, and giant’s rings. “I wanted to see what would happen if we took actual low-brow ephemera from the sideshow era,” Kereszi explained a statement, “and put these items up against unrefuted high art.”
Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 continues at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum (600 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut) through May 31, and Side Show continues at the Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Gallery (32 Edgewood Avenue, New Haven, Connecticut) through March 20.
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