NASHVILLE — Back in 2016, it seemed clowns would only continue on their trajectory as icons of all things creepy, as dozens of reports poured in around Halloween of clowns wreaking havoc in the woods.
But then, of course, Trump was confirmed to presidency. In contrast to the corrupt figures at the helm of the circus that is our American government, most clowns now seems quaint. They are a conduit, even, for expressing feelings of frustration. Last year, Ugo Rondinone’s exhibition at The Bass in Miami Beach, “good evening beautiful blue,” was a stand-out favorite for many who attended Art Basel Miami. It featured glum, #sadboys sculptures in clown attire.
At Nashville, Tennessee’s Elephant Gallery, The Clown Show is bringing visitors the silliness we so desperately need in these dark times. The exhibition features representations of fun clowns on a lamp by artist Alexandria Olivia Hall, a clay miniature of a cake by Rachel Growden, and other clown-related items. The Clown Show is the first-ever open call for Elephant Gallery. Artist Alex Lockwood formally opened the gallery last year, and it has since hosted 12 exhibitions. The show is split into themed areas: a creepy area, a textile area, a ceramics area, and a pastel area — comprising a dizzying maze of clown-themed rooms.
Some of the other 50-plus artists clowning around at the exhibition include artist-couple CHIAOZZA and sculptor/painter Rebecca Morgan. Morgan, who collaborated on a porcelain jug shown Ron Geibel at the gallery, told me, “In my own work, I employ aspects of clowny over-exaggerated caricature. … Ultimately, I believe clowns are an employment of escapism; We can digest our own dramas and empathetically see aspects of ourselves in the circus-like minefields we roll around.”
The artist who is probably most qualified to be in the show is Joanna Fields. Much of Fields’s art practice involves mixed-media interpretations of comically large clown shoes. Last year she even designed clown cut-outs for a photobooth at Desert Island Comics interactive book fair.
Above all, the clown embodies Elephant Gallery’s curatorial mission: bold colors, wacky concepts, humor, and rudimentary style. Ellie Caudill, gallery manager at Elephant and co-curator of The Clown Show, hopes that no one perceives a desire for colorful, playful exhibitions as not being serious. “In fact we take [our exhibitions] very seriously. There is very much a need in our community for more accessibility and approachability. Nashville is still very segregated by both class and race. Art should be for and include everyone,” she says. The artwork sold at Elephant is typically under $400 and for each show the gallery also commissions merchandise and food designed by an artist to fit the opening night’s theme. In the coming year they will introduce a teaching classroom of sorts into the gallery.
Perhaps this exhibition especially works because clowns are the great equalizer. We fear them and yet can’t get enough of them and we’ve known them all our lives. Just ask Cindy Sherman or the musician Seth Bogart, who just launched his own TV show filled with performance, papier-mâché food, and clown-inspired sartorial decisions. One might also think of the clown’s appearance in art as a way to queer spaces and give power back to camp, as in Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp.
For The Clown Show, Caudill looked to drag and the fashion of performers like queen Sussi and trans star Imp Kid for inspiration, as the queer outsider art community has long been othered and relegated to spaces that aren’t considered to be high art. On opening night of The Clown Show, guests were encouraged to come in costume.
Historically art galleries have been “white cubes,” intentionally sterile atmospheres designed to facilitate singular viewing of art. At Elephant, all of that is subverted. “[In the past,] we’ve had pink carpet and matching pink walls for Ugly Clay and live grass and ombre blue walls for David Onri Anderson’s Earthbound [show]. For this show I spray painted huge rainbow daisies and bananas all over a shiny white floor,” Caudill explained to me. Likewise, to place the clown at the center a gallery show is to refute the gallery as its known.
Zoe Schlacter, a textile artist included in The Clown Show, who will have a solo show at Elephant Gallery in 2019, told me, “To me, clown art has a lot of associations with kitsch, paint by numbers, needlepoints, thrift store art — essentially, cultural trash. Reclaiming this imagery and using it in fine art gallery setting is in of itself a subversive gesture.” Schlacter cut up two found clown needlepoints and wove them together for their piece in the show.
“[In today’s art world], we are all very appearance focused — more than [ever before] in my lifetime. Instagram is basically a clown costume: an image of joy, of perfection, in marriage, in self, with kids, but the reality is chaos,” says Elephant Gallery owner Lockwood. “And there’s so much joy in hiding behind a mask and so much sadness in having to hide ourselves from the world.”
“When I watched the Instagram feed and stories of the opening of The Clown Show at Elephant Gallery in Nashville, it definitely felt like it was an opening of comic relief,” says Morgan. “It was light and absurd and genuine and truly funny- doing all the things that are sometimes hard to find in the darkness of our times.”
In an era of uniquely corrupt politics that directly attack the civil liberties of the queer community along with environmental regulations spurring the impending doom of climate change, looking to clowns seems like a way to experience radical joy — that is, to take pleasure in the completely unpretentious, totally original aspects of life. Let’s just let ourselves have a little fun.
The Clown Show continues at Elephant Gallery (1411 Buchanan Street, Nashville, Tennessee) through November 10. The exhibition is curated by Ellie Caudill and Alex Lockwood.