Behold the proud American tradition of hucksterism, swindle and graft.
No institution topped the carnival sideshow for hyperbolic excess and outright deception, with its promises of tribesmen straight off the boat from Africa and elegantly dressed gentlemen who could fit in the palm of your hand.
Only the charlatans of Madison Avenue hocking everlasting youth cream and brio in a bottle could give those fairground fabulists a run for their wooden nickels.
Step Right Up! Sideshow Wonders and Human Curiosities at Orange Hill Art is part art exhibition, part exegesis of the great native vernacular of freak showmanship with its maniacal exclamation points and use of reds as incendiary as a baboon's rump. Step Right Up! celebrates the ignoble but fun-as-hell tradition of separating chumps from their silver and gainfully employing the freaks, fakes, show-people and bottom feeders who made carny life a consummately American blend of advertising, faux education and buck-making.
The artists in Step Right Up! offer their homage to the carnival by creating smaller-scale versions of the enormous canvas banners that lured customers inside the carnival freak show with promises of sex, gore and shock. Self-taught Vancouver artist Kevin House's canvas banners replicate the neon-on-a-budget of hopped-up primary colors to set the proper hysterical tone for his promises of tiny men the size of fountain pens and "Real True" Cyclops kids with a troika of eyeballs.
House's banners effectively mimic real sideshow art, founded on minimalist backgrounds and crude figures sporting flipper appendages or a "Strange Baby" with a full set of choppers.
The frontman for the rockabilly band Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, J.D. Wilkes, invests his maximumalist poster art-inspired banners with a more contemporary feel, finding inspiration from comic book art including R. Crumb's Keep on Truckin' dude.
Wilkes identifies a shared affinity for the flamboyantly over-the-top in sideshow ballyhoo and rock 'n' roll showmanship. Alabama neo-banner artist Butch Anthony finds a similar strain of carny excess in the Southern lust for hyperbole and tall tales. In addition to his banner designs, Anthony is the proprietor of the Alabama Museum of Wonder, a folk art "environment," a portion of which is represented at Orange Hill.
Anthony's banners advertising dinosaur bones and electrocuted chickens evoke the text-heavy tendencies of the supermarket tabloid and feature a more whimsical, cartoonish cast of characters. He complements his banner art by exhibiting the Bigfoot scat (excrement) and basketball-sized gallstones that his poster art promises. Housed behind glass like holy relics, they're "legitimized" with yellowed newspaper clippings. Anthony's tongue-in-cheek exhibits expertly replicate the dime museum and carnival hoaxes, such as Albert Einstein's brain tinted bright pink and looking suspiciously like it's composed of thick-cut bacon.
Step Right Up! manages to put the fun back in freak without missing the element of tribute and reverence in its carny-artist fans. A collection of photographs featuring well-known freak show performer Johnny Eck is included in the exhibition, as well as Philadelphia artist James G. Mundie's moody chiaroscuro drawings of sanctified freaks.
A poet of understatement compared to his shrieking banner brethren, Mundie has created a gorgeous, bittersweet series of ink-on-paper drawings called "Prodigies," which combine the sober parables of religious painting and Renaissance portraiture with some of the stars of the midway. Referencing the hard road of showmanship, Mundie wrests poignance from a man gingerly appraising the deformed skeleton of the "Two-Headed Boy of Bengal" or the impossible love of "The Nova Scotia Giantess and the Lilliputian King."
In the process, Mundie acknowledges the subtext behind many contemporary freak show fans' devotion, of seeing the freak as metaphor for one's own outsider and misfit status.
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