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Robert Cruikshank, “The Living Skeleton” (1825), etching, hand colored, 24.5 x 34.5 cm (plate) (image courtesy of Cushing/ Whitney Medical Library, Collection of Prints and Drawings, Yale University) (click to enlarge)

Long before Desperate HousewivesHoney 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.”

Chris DAZE Ellis, “Coney Island Freak Show Museum, to have and have not” (1996), oil on linen, 65 x 84 in (image courtesy of Web Gallery NYC, photo by Adam Reich)

James G. Mundie, “Olympia (Betty Lou Williams)” (1999), ink drawing on paper, 7.25 x 8 in (image courtesy of the artist, photo by James G. Mundie)

Roger Brown, “Can’t Never Could / The Courage To Face The Trials And Bring A Whole New Body Of Possibilities Into The Field of Interpreted Experience — That Is the Artist’s Deed. Joseph Campbell” (1991), oil on canvas, 48 x 72 in (© SAIC and the Brown Family; image courtesy of the Roger Brown Study Collection, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; photo by William Bengston)

Pamela Joseph, “Selected works from The Hundred Headless Women Cutting Board Wall” (2001–13), pyrog- raphy on wood, 91 x 96 in (image courtesy of the artist, photo by Pamela Joseph)

Arnold Mesches, “It’s a Circus 3” (2004), acrylic on canvas, 80 x 80 in (image courtesy of the artist)

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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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...