Coney Island has a history as dizzying as any of the roller coasters, carousels, sideshows, and other frenetic attractions that have operated on its piece of Brooklyn shore. Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, organized and originally staged at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Connecticut and now on view at the Brooklyn Museum, focuses on the artists who have been inspired by Coney Island over the past 150 years. Whether we’re looking at 19th-century Impressionistic vistas by John Henry Twachtman and William Meritt Chase of the seaside landscape, interrupted by a 300-foot tower for a steam elevator; an elephant-shaped hotel; or the anonymously created Cyclops head from the 1950s that once ogled its eye from the Spook-A-Rama, there’s a shared fantasy that’s both tantalizing and trepidatious. From nearly the beginning, Coney Island was a New York City escape of both dreams and nightmares.
Curated by Robin Jaffee Frank, Visions of an American Dreamland is an overwhelming experience, with more than 140 objects that each demand attention. Some are from the Brooklyn Museum while others arrived from the Museum of the City of New York, New England Carousel Museum, American Folk Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, International Center of Photography, Carnegie Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and private collections. Carousel horses are positioned alongside oil paintings of the bright lights and elaborate structures of Coney Island’s 19th-century parks, mingling with artifacts of attractions like early 20th-century cast-iron shooting galleries by W.F. Mangels and sideshow banners for human “freaks” such as Quito the Human Octopus.
For the Brooklyn Museum stop of the traveling show, the spectacle is joined by two concurrent exhibitions. Forever Coney: Photographs from the Brooklyn Museum Collection features over 40 archive photographs from the museum, and Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull) encompasses a site-specific installation of two towers mixing signage and typography by Powers in collaboration with other street artists, and a pop-up of his ICY SIGNS, a nomadic sign shop Powers launched in Coney Island back in 2003. Both of these exhibitions stand on their own as separate meditations on “America’s Playground,” with the nostalgia of the old photographs and the more chaotic present identity shown through Powers’s colorful monoliths.
Like Coney Island itself, it’s not easy to take it all in at once. And like one of its fun house mirrors, each turn in the galleries reveals some unexpected perspective, whether an X-ray photograph by Edward J. Kelty of a sword swallower named Ajax in 1928, or the eerie video of the electrocution of Topsy the elephant by Thomas Edison in 1903. While the focus is art, the grasp is wide, including an abstract painting by Frank Stella not far from more folk art pieces like fabric ball toss targets painted with sardonic smiles that are somewhere between a grimace and a grin.
The show is arranged chronologically in a timeline that will be familiar to anyone who knows Coney Island’s past, or has visited two of the institutions devoted to its history: the Coney Island History Project and Coney Island USA. Coney Island started as a weekend beach destination in 1829 with the construction of the Coney Island House, which was accessed by a crushed shell carriage road, later transformed in the 1870s with new railroad lines, bringing the most opulent parks like Dreamland and Luna Park at the turn-of-the-century. In the 1920s, subway line extensions morphed the site again into the populist “Nickel Empire,” and saw the rise of its boardwalk.
What’s interesting about the exhibition, and adds something new to the heaps of existing history on the place, is the emphasis on Coney Island’s inspiration of the visual imagination. There are some films playing in the galleries, but mostly Visions of an American Dreamland celebrates Coney Island as art muse. Joseph Stella, who cited its “violent, dangerous pleasures,” painted Coney Island as a turbulent “Battle of Lights” in 1914 with colors breaking out in a manic mix of fragmented shapes. The Depression-era art of Reginald Marsh has buoyant bodies flung around the physical rides of Steeplechase Park, like the Barrel of Love that turned and tossed everyone against each other. Others loved Coney Island’s darker sides, like crime photographer Weegee who was drawn to its packed beaches, and later the wreckage of the 1944 fire that destroyed Luna Park.
The exhibition has 2008 as its cut-off point, the year that Astroland closed, and quietly ends with scenes from Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Swoon’s meditative “Coney, Early Evening” (2005), with cut-outs of people swaying on fishing line with loops of the Cyclone roller coaster. The exhibition notes Coney Island’s downfall, although leaves out many details, like the exile of housing projects to the edges of the city, including alongside the Cyclone, under Robert Moses in the 1950s. There was also the infamous brick-throwing celebration staged by Fred Trump (father of Donald) to prepare for the demolition of Steeplechase Park in the 1960s to make way for apartment buildings that, due to zoning, never arrived.
The 2008 end point likewise misses Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that left its own wreckage, of which the Cyclops head is a survivor, and doesn’t mention any of the worrisome commercialization projects like the proposed 40-story residential tower on Neptune Avenue. Numerous stories didn’t make it in — whether the first acts of Harry Houdini or the strolls of Woody Guthrie and the eventual scattering of his ashes on its beach; neither did certain lesser-known artists, like the mysterious Larry Millard whose hand-painted murals adorned the recently demolished Playland Arcade. It’s a place with a story impossible to contain or explain within one exhibition, yet Visions of an American Dreamland is an admirable attempt, with a quixotic belief in the unique magic of the constantly transforming and curiously enduring seaside escape.
Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 continues through March 13, 2016 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn).