Everyone loves a good freak show. At least that's what curators Alma Ronis and Chako Suzuki were counting on when they birthed the mutant that is Welcome to the Carnival Fabulon, the startling new exhibit opening at the Cassius King Gallery downtown.
What is normal? What is freakish? These are the questions the group show explores. All females, the 19 artists navigate cleverly through carnivalesque themes and unusual images with paint, wax, fiber work and collage.
"I had just read Katherine Dunn's Geek Love and I was obsessed with it," explains Suzuki of the inspiration for Carnival Fabulon. "We had been talking about doing an all women's show for awhile and we were trying to figure out a way our artists could all work together under one tent."
"No pun intended," interjects Ronis.
"A lot of them had never approached this subject before, so it was kind of cool," adds Suzuki.
The curators say some of the artists expressed apprehension when approached with the topic. Rebecca Westcott, a well-known painter from Philadelphia, protested that she painted only portraits and plants. Apprehension gave way to excitement, however, as the artists became more comfortable with the idea. They met for discussions, shared articles on freak shows and, of course, read Geek Love.
Dunn's cult classic tells the sardonic story of a carnival family created by parents who consume all manner of drugs in order to breed freakish, distorted and thus marketable children. These "freaks" view the "norms" with pity, and one of the malformed children begins a perverse cult in which participants have their limbs amputated in order to become more like him. It's a disgusting read, and fully enthralling.
"It's important because it's one of the ugly parts of American history, but it's a very American thing," says Suzuki. Sideshow freaks held the same fascination that we now devote to questionable reality shows like The Swan, in which women are transformed by a team of plastic surgeons. It's a televised cult with a premise eerily similar to Dunn's.
Ronis and Suzuki are careful to emphasize that Carnival Fabulon is not a feminist show, but certain themes emerge in pieces such as Carson Ellis' "Snake Enchantress," which depicts a woman with snakes coiled around her, entangled with a man in a carnival barker's outfit. Her high heels suggest fetish, forcing the viewer to consider the notion of freakiness as being sexy.
Each artist approaches the subject differently. Some of the works can be related directly to the novel, such as the paintings of Rachel Solomon and Suzuki's own collages. Others are more ambiguous.
But all reflect the diverse backgrounds of the creators. Alexia Markarian has worked with the circus. Others, such as tattoo artist and native San Diegan Emily Coonce, can indirectly relate.
The success of the show lies in its ability to fascinate, to revolt, to freak out.
Prices for the art begin as low as $50 because, as Ronis explains, "it's not going to be like, "Oh, I want this on the dining room wall.'" The subject matter doesn't exactly aid digestion, but the unique quality of the work is undeniable.
In Geek Love, a journalist asks one of the abnormal children if she would want to make her family physically and mentally normal if it was possible. "That's ridiculous!" she replies. "Each of us is unique. We are masterpieces. Why would I want us to change into assembly-line items?"
Welcome to the Carnival Fabulon is an exhibit of such masterpieces. "Cassius King is edgier [than most galleries]," said Ronis. "We can do these kinds of shows without worrying about mainstream acceptance."
And after all, as Suzuki muses, "In a way, I guess we're all freaks."Welcome to the Carnival Fabulon runs through May 31 at the Cassius King Gallery (435 3rd Ave., Downtown). 619-232-KING.