“Side Show,” the Yale School of Art’s first exhibition of 2015, has come to town as the main event at 32 Edgewood Gallery. On view until March 20, the exhibition features a wide array of paintings, photographs, banners, dioramas, and historical odds-and-ends, an illuminating cross-section of material artifacts and fine art dating from the mid-18th century to the present. The unifying theme is the carnival sideshow: a form of escapist entertainment that has been situated in so many ways — geographically, bodily, psychologically — on the outskirts of the mainstream.
“Side Show” encourages our active consideration of “low-brow” material culture through its placement into a fine-art setting, not an unusual device in curation. An almost obsessive consumption of the exceptional and the abnormal dictates the overall energy of the exhibition. (And, in a way, both popular and high culture share this common fascination.) Curated by Lisa Kereszi ’00 M.F.A. and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art, the sheer spectacle of “Side Show” is heightened by a lack of accompanying text or labels. These graphic, garish, dreamy pieces pack a visceral, visual punch on their own terms. For instance, upon entering the exhibition through the back door of 32 Edgewood Gallery, visitors are greeted by a taxidermied two-headed calf; nearby is a Feejee Mermaid, a gruesome patchwork of monkey torso and fish tail. If so inclined, of course, curious gallery-goers can pick up handouts that thoroughly document all of the pieces on display. It would be difficult, in fact, to fully appreciate, or even understand, the exhibition’s intent without the supplementary information and curator’s notes provided. In addition, lectures, performances, and live entertainment — beginning with an opening lecture by magician, historian, and collector Ricky Jay — constitute a line-up of sideshows to “Side Show” itself.
In keeping with the sideshow-becomes-main-event theme, these additional events are central in ensuring that “Side Show,” which might otherwise be spectacle for spectacle’s sake, instead serves as the focus for a critical look at a morally questionable industry. Less than ideally, some of the artists in the exhibition seem to excessively romanticize or appropriate the kind of physical ‘other’-ness that sideshows so infamously exploit — for example, Diane Arbus, whose black-and-white photography is included in the exhibition, once said, “There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle.”
At the same time, “Side Show” includes several pieces that challenge this history of exploitation and push against discriminatory social attitudes toward, for example, physical disability. Particularly striking is artist Riva Lehrer’s life-sized, full-frontal-nude drawing of actor and performance artist Mat Fraser, who was born with phocomelia of the arms. (This congenital disorder resulted from his mother’s use of the anti-nausea drug thalidomide in the sixties.) A disability activist who stars in “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” Fraser performed at the exhibition’s opening reception; Lehrer herself was born with spina bifida and will participate in a panel discussion on January 26. In displaying the work of artists like Fraser and Lehrer, “Side Show” and its accompanying events provide space for their visions and voices, much as the original sideshows gave many performers the opportunity to financially sustain themselves and their families. More importantly, Fraser, Lehrer and other artists in the exhibition redirect the visual vocabulary of sideshows toward more subversive and more productive purposes.
The show’s intellectual and emotional power exists less in any transgressive juxtaposition of high and low culture, and less in any taboo representation of the body: it rests rather in the social critiques put forth by these various artists, in a sense, the most empowering form of transgression. David Carbone’s vivid painting of a female contortionist on a red background is a celebration of the human body, directing us to marvel at its sheer imaginative range, at the existence of fire-breathers and sword-eaters. And in the same vein, “Side Show” connects us to unique individuals, from magicians to punk-rock disability activists, and their fresh prespectives. Ultimately, these people take center stage — expanding our understanding of the range of human art, and of human experience.