Arts and Entertainment

Circus Redux at MUSEO

Michel Tsouris
Michel Tsouris' 'Missing the Point' will be part of the circus show at MUSEO called 'The Greatest Show.' It opens Saturday, Jan. 23.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of MUSEO

Under big tops all over the world, ringmasters conduct the circus, the light and dark hurlyburly theater of marginal life.

There acrobats, clowns, fire-eaters, strong men and bearded ladies, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, unicyclists and other stunt-oriented artists perform some of the greatest acts of danger in the very heart of the mainstream world.

At MUSEO gallery, curator Sandra Jarvis welcomes artists to delve into the dark and the light of the circus world under her own big top.

She will play ringmaster to “The Greatest Show,” which opens on Saturday, Jan. 23 at MUSEO in Langley, with an artists’ reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The show will feature the work of more than 25 artists riffing around the theme of the circus.

Jarvis began a tradition at MUSEO for which every year the February show is to feature a theme that explores the margins of society. The shows often have a light and dark side, bringing each artist’s unique interpretation to the theme, Jarvis said.

Much like the circus, the February theme shows welcome the community to peel off the effects of the dark days of winter and don an air of festivity and fun, and this year in that spirit, they shall be welcomed into a tent of circus-themed art.

Jarvis invited all local artists, and those new to the island and others who wanted to participate, in a show to which almost everybody can relate.

“I chose the circus because not many people have neutral feelings about the circus; they either like it or they don’t,” Jarvis said. She enjoys the provocativeness of the theme.

To prepare for the show, Jarvis went with friends to a performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in September where she took in the performers, the animals, the audience and the ever-present animal-cruelty protesters outside the tent.

It was not hard to get the artists excited about the idea.

Lopez Island artist Bruce Botts said that when he was younger, he found a black-and-white sign that read: “Help wanted to travel with carnival. Inquire at ride.”

“I still have that sign in my studio. To me, the circus is so rich, it is theater, it’s a museum — all its aspects are real, and metaphorical. It’s a goldmine,” Botts said.

Botts’ collage and watercolor etchings convey a combination of the colorful free-flowing portraits a child might create with the sardonic perception of a horrified adult. His gravity-defying elephant perches precariously on the brink of its animal nature, while Botts’ juggler blends the props of the scholarly Sir Isaac Newton with the unnerving look of Mephistopheles.

Sculptor Danielle Bodine had a much less sinister notion when she was first enticed by the circus theme.

Her thoughts turned to childhood memories of animals and flying people, images of the contemporary finesse of Cirque du Soleil, as well as the novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants,” and the sideshow acts of the Ringling Bros., which included wonderfully odd people such as a bearded lady, the thinnest man alive and Senorita Josephine and her snakes.

“I finally decided to take a lighter route and create imaginary animals for ‘The Greatest Show.’ This was partially inspired by my interest in Flea Circuses and by my first childhood experience with circuses — watching Walt Disney’s Dumbo the flying elephant, which opened up a whole exciting, fanciful world for me at the time,” Bodine said.

Although she had visions of creating a veritable menagerie of imaginary animals for the show, in reality Bodine had time to create two pieces called “The Magnificent Magnetic Cosmic Elephanto” and his “Trainee.”

These she created in honor of Dumbo using paper, paint, a gas nozzle, funnels, plastic plants and automotive caps.

She hopes Elephanto will be joined in the future by other created imaginary friends.

Multi-media artist Richard Evans probably was not thinking of Disney’s “Dumbo” when he created “Appropriation.” His is a 10-foot-high, six-foot-wide sculpture with the subtitle, “Into Ordinary Lives The Big Top Billows.”

“It presents the many facets of theft, including the theft of wonderment from children who have never been near a circus, never known the in-person thrill of the big top,” Evans said.

As in much of his work, Evans uses irony to reflect his perception of the negligent path society is taking.

The piece, he said, compares the trance-like effect of television and digital games on children to the side-show manipulation of circus freaks, the tossing of dwarfs, and the danger implicit in the lives of circus headliners, a handful of transparent acrobats fluttering before their inevitable fall.

Evans blends the darkest parts of current society with humor, a juxtaposition that forces his themes to the forefront of artistic and political conversation.

“It sounds grim, and it is, but it’s also a very funny piece,” Evans said. “By funny I mean edgy, off-center, comprised of many contradictory parts, some kinetic, some frozen in time.”

But, as Jarvis suspected, in her intent to push artists to the very heart of what the circus means to them, these artists reveled in the project and perhaps discovered more than they thought they would.

Evans was no exception.

“I’m sure it will perplex some, and make others choke on their peanuts. Like a kid gone gaga at the circus, life at this moment finds me up to my giraffe in Elmer’s glue and furniture clamps.”

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Sandra Jarvis and the folks at MUSEO for going out on a limb every year to give outsider artists like myself a wonderful venue,” he added.

To complete the circus atmosphere, Jarvis commissioned local designers Richard Bullock and Richard Cannon to create an actual big top for the gallery, and islander and circus artist Matt Hoar was invited along with several of his circus colleagues to fill the opening night gala with a live circus flavor.

“We hope the community will join us to brighten the dark and rainy days of winter at this unusual opening. And to lend another note of authenticity, we will have protesters outside the gallery, all in the spirit of good fun,” Jarvis said.

“The Greatest Show” runs through March 2.

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