THE CARNIE YEARS
During my undergraduate studies, I was fascinated with the idea of employing archetypal carnival and sideshow characters as mythological figures in their own stories, creating an atmosphere of mystery, menace, and psycho-sexual tension. I was going through a lot of emotional struggle at the time and creating these stories was an outlet for my own fears and insecurities, hoping that others might be able to relate as well. Some find these images disturbing to look at, so please return to another page if the images are too unsettling. I was also just beginning my painting studies, so the images all have an “outsider art” feel that lends itself really well to the strange and fantastical subject matter. Most of these images are scans from old slides and have been restored to the best condition possible, but may still not be as vivid as some of the original paintings were.
Many characters flowed through the paintings over the six or so years that I created the sideshow work. The red-haired acrobat represented strength and sometimes a more “masculine” or androgynous femininity. The bearded lady was a very feminine character, wearing corsets and gowns. Conjoined twins often represented the dual nature in all of us, feelings of beauty and security alongside jealousy, envy and insecurity. Autosite-parasite figures, those which would have been conjoined twins, but the additional body parts did not develop into a secondary independent being, displayed the flaws that we feel are glaringly obvious to others, but that we must make the best of and overcome.
Snakes, usually paired with the red-headed acrobat, were a symbol of wisdom, independence and strength as well. Horse-headed and gazelle headed women were akin to Egyptian anthropomorphic deities, representing a sense of the mysterious and that which is unknown. The obese woman was a symbol of someone who had so much to give, but did not yet have anyone to share her love with. The skeletal man represented someone starved for love, who did not know how to ask for what he needed. And the little man represented a completely independent person, someone who needed no one and was sufficient unto himself.
The “geek”, the sideshow performer who was said to bite the heads off of chickens and other small animals to thrill and horrify the viewers, was similar to a Jekyll and Hyde figure, one moment, perfectly calm, the next filled with literally tearing the head off of the animal, then next calm again, but in a slightly shocked, rigid pose, as if questioning what was just done.
Throughout, there are often lurking figures, sometimes the ringmaster or barker, or perhaps someone else, who was omnipresent in the lives of the characters, always watching, always judging, always keeping them “in their place”. He is often shown silhouetted in the doorway of the carnival tent, the backlit with bright light from outside, or, if in the tent with the figures, is only partially shown, emerging from the shadows. His face is never shown, so his intent is never fully known, but tends to create a sense of menace and foreboding. And there are other more general figures, like contortionists, fireaters, and other unassuming acrobats, that act as design elements, creating an air of tension and otherness.