Truth Teller, Mischief Maker: Artist as Clown and Vice Versa


“Send in the clowns/Oh where are the clowns?/Don’t bother, they’re here.” We all know the words, but they seem especially apt in these Bushwhacked days. Maybe that’s why there’s been a proliferation of clown imagery in contemporary art, a phenomenon critic Jan Avgikos spotlights in the group exhibition she’s curated, “I Am the Walrus.” Spanning 20 years, it includes work by artists as varied as Ana Mendieta, Jack Pierson, and David Salle, the earliest being Paul McCarthy’s 1974 video performance, Basement Clown, still resonantly creepy after all these years. One of the newest, Tony Matelli’s 2004 Ancient Echo, a realistic sculpture of a life-size monkey vomiting against a wall, is also the funniest in the show. Together in the same room, both works create a kind of conceptual loop where the clown as self-portrait sounds an echoing guffaw. As Avgikos states in her curatorial essay, “the clown is the artist.” And vice versa, Ugo Rondinone’s reclining figure might say, fairy dust circling his feet, fluorescent red hair neatly arranged in a comb-over. Or the morose-looking Warhol in Christopher Makos’s portrait, who dons a bulbous clown nose over his own.

Avgikos also reminds us that the clown in its various guises—court jester, buffoon, circus entertainer—has been society’s truth teller, mischief maker, and propriety breaker, and is as old as the hills (dating as far back as 2200 B.C., she notes). Many artists here seem to take her view to heart. Roni Horn’s photo series alternating images of clouds with those of blurred clowns, John Bock’s video installation in which he recites Act I of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and John Waters’s nostalgic TV stills of Clarabelle, for example, all evoke the clown as a culturally complex, evolving character. The typical clichés are never overplayed; instead what emerges is a ragtag parade of willing misfits, immortal fools, and slapstick raconteurs—personae well suited for the art world, if too smart for the likes of Washington.