Evil clowns famously fuel kiddie nightmares, just as sad clown paintings on black velvet inevitably trouble the dreams of art critics.
Alcove Gallery owner H.C. Warner genuinely loves the greasepaint and sawdust, however, and the word “trapeze” even figures in his e-mail address. For his birthday every February, the Decatur-based artist goes to the circus. “The circus usually comes through town in February, and I’m big on celebrating my birthday. I’m big on looking through the innocent eyes of a child. At the circus, you’re back, eating popcorn and cotton candy, and you kind of let go of your worries.”
Warner doesn’t really care about nouveau spectaculars like Cirque du Soleil. He’s more of a Barnum & Bailey purist who prefers the traditional three-ring presentation, from animal acts to sideshow performers. “If we have a fire-breather, we have to have a guy on stilts. It’s like a good casserole — it has to have all the ingredients.” He doesn’t play favorites, but admits, “I do like the elephants.”
A disappointing recent experience under the big top inspired Alcove Gallery’s Cartoon Madness IV: Circus. It’s Alcove’s fourth annual show in a series that emphasizes local artists, frequently ones who work with Atlanta’s Cartoon Network, and who take on subjects that provoke childhood flashbacks. “I had a sour taste in my mouth from the last time I went to the circus. I knew the PETA animal rights thing caused the circus to flatten out a bit, and there should be no abuse of any animal or human. But even down to the clowns, the circus has gotten very formatted and generic. What happened? It just wasn’t the same. So I thought of putting on our own circus.”
For Cartoon Madness IV: Circus, roughly 30 artists, including R. Land, “Squidbillies’” Ben Prisk and musician Daniel Johnston, present works that take the big top theme, crack a whip and shoot it out of a cannon. The exhibit seems to present every possible perspective on circus acts, from nostalgic to nightmarish to political to surreal.
Jason Snyder’s “Claus” offers a subtle but wicked portrait of a white tiger. Human fingers hang discretely from the beast’s mouth, and it’s displayed in a gilt frame like you’d see on the wall at grandma’s house. Joe Havasy’s “Flying Clowns Descend on Schoolyard” has garishly colored fanged funnymen dive-bombing from the sky and chomping on children — it makes a comedic first impression, then proves more disturbing with time. The work illustrates how the adult world pushes clowns on kids, even though they can scare the youngsters.
Others hark back more affectionately to circus lore. Visibleman’s “The Fire Eater” evokes more traditional circus poster art, while Mr. Hooper’s “General Tom Thumb” presents one of the 19th century’s most popular sideshow performers. Ben Boling’s playful parodies include a riff on “American Gothic,” with a Cyclops farmwife and a dog-faced husband standing before a multicolored tent.
Some offer surreal meditations. Ashley Surber presents two paintings, each with driftwood frames, that relocate circus acts underwater. In “Underwater Tightrope,” a tightrope walker falls from the wire, and hurtles toward the tentacles of an awaiting octopus instead of a net. Overall, visiting Alcove while Circus is up is like experiencing a sugar high at a carnival, or maybe being transported into the lyrics of a Tom Waits album.
Warner initially got the idea for Cartoon Madness when he began freelancing for the Cartoon Network, working on package design for Adult Swim programs such as “The Brak Show,” “Harvey Birdman” and “Sealab 2021.” “Crazies find crazies and like minds find like minds,” he says about gathering artists for a gallery show loosely inspired by cartoons, including Jay Rogers, Duke Abers, Jacob Escobedo and Joe Peery. “I worked hard to get the Cartoon Network seal of approval for it, so their name was on the first show. Given the red tape I had to go through, I decided it wasn’t important for the subsequent ones, although if the Cartoon Network called and asked if they could be involved, I’d be happy to work with them.”
He calls the first two Cartoon Madness installments “free-for-all” group shows with no preassigned theme. In 2008, he mounted the plaything-oriented Toyland, followed by Circus a year later. “I just have to decide if the idea has personality and if people have interest. This one, I knew I could trigger people who weren’t just digging stuff out of a closet. Nobody likes homework, nobody likes an assignment, so I try not to do it too often. We also have people who flip out and love the idea and ask to be in the show.” He explains that after Alcove announces its calendar in September, “On the first of January, I start fishing for people to show in the group shows. An artist needs time to stew, but you should be able to pull out a piece of art in three months.”
Warner says Alcove’s Cartoon Madness, as well as similar pop-culture-themed shows based on The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, have found “colossal” popularity. He acknowledges that pop-themed artwork can strike a chord with the viewer. “There’s a familiarity to it. Your conscious or subconscious will grasp it.” It’s more than that, though, he says. “I think that good art still has some set of laws. Good art is timeless. An accomplished piece is one that gives and gives to you for years. It can just be an incredible painting of a tree.”
I visited Alcove on March 5, the day before Circus’ opening-night party, which appropriately featured music and performances from the band Greasepaint. Warner was putting the finishing touches on “Mr. Ed Biafra,” his large metal sculpture of a blue horse, made of machine parts, leaping through a ring of fire. “This is actually my first 3-D sculpture. It’s still a work in progress. I literally started painting it last night, and I’ll have another late night working on it. It was almost a self-portrait, with jumping through a hoop of fire as representing our everyday lifestyle.”
He sounds far from discontented, though. In bringing Circus together, Warner almost seems like he’s struck a balance between the craft of his art and the showmanship of a ringmaster.