Freak Show

There are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than viewing Pamela Joseph's Sideshow of the Absurd, on view at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. The State Fair midway is less entertaining and a lot pricier. The MAC is closer than Six Flags. It beats the History Channel, and the DMA, and washing the car.

Even my 11-year-old daughter, jaded veteran of the art world that she is, was impressed. On a recent Sunday, the MAC was deserted as usual, so I turned her loose with a friend to check out the exhibit, which mimics a carny sideshow. Within a minute or two of wandering among Joseph's mechanized, interactive works of "art," I heard shrieks of laughter and delighted preteen horror. Fortunately, the sexual politics that give the show its veneer of intellectual justification were lost on her; as far as she was concerned, the mannequin parts, silhouettes of strippers, female mud wrestlers and references to cunnilingus were so much visual noise. At least this art exhibition was cool. "Usually it's just a room full of paintings," she sniffed wearily to her wide-eyed companion. Bo-ring.

In this way, Pamela Joseph's show is anything but a freak. Indeed, it represents the dominant contemporary aesthetic in these tender years of the 21st century. These days it is de rigueur for high art to play at being low, to pander to popular tastes--in a word, to appeal to an audience with the visual sophistication of 11-year-olds. And the dearth of other viewers at the MAC illustrates why. It is no accident that the hippest art theorists churn out manifestoes championing art as a democratic enterprise, a capital-intensive form of voting. Of course, this is less an aesthetic strategy than a rationalization. And, as somebody somewhere pointed out, rationalizations are in the end more important than sex. For who among us has gone a week without one?

And so, in hoity-toity critical jargon, the MAC is laying it on. Wall text explains that Joseph, a Colorado-based conceptual artist, "employs the so-called 'democratic space' of carnival to re-present and thus transform the performers that are its subject." In other words, Joseph, like virtually every artist these days, is obsessed with popular iconography. In Joseph's case, this manifests itself not in an endless series of altars, skulls and things in jars, but in a fascination with tabloid superstitions and popular beliefs.

The artist explores this territory in a series of 20 or so elaborately staged mixed-media installations, with mechanized, moving parts, sound, lights and real horror-show effects. The results are wildly entertaining. The major works are interactive, with windup keys or sensors tripped by the viewer's feet. A number are walk-in tents with elaborate displays inside: aliens and movie stars and fortunetellers and women's body parts. Along the walls, a series of circus banners and preliminary drawings illustrate Joseph's concepts in down-to-earth visual language: bright, cartoonish drawing, gaudy color, crude figuration.

It's fun, and smart, and often hilarious. Take, for example, "Tiny Town/Conjoined Twins," an interactive multimedia work featuring two figures, a man and a woman, conjoined Siamese twin-style at the back. The two figures sit atop a stool that, in turn, rests atop a large drawing of a town. Though at first the drawing resembles a Candy Land-style game board, upon inspection it seems the town is beset by a series of disasters: fires, tornadoes, a kneeling figure giving CPR. And when the viewer turns the key, the two figures argue like any long-married couple. One nods yes and the other no, while they engage in dialectics: "Yes." "No." "Maybe." "I don't think so." "You never liked this before." "That's not true." "Just say yes." "'No' is a complete sentence."

Other works are more pointed. "The Torture Museum," for example, explores the theme of female mutilation, self-imposed and otherwise, featuring a wall of knives and saw blades and female mannequin parts. At the end of this walk-in exhibit, a window allows us to peek into an S&M version of a beauty parlor, where a mannequin's head rests on a bench. The head is attached to a beauty-parlor hood by means of neon wires, with sound effects straight out of the Bride of Frankenstein.

Wall text at the MAC acknowledges the problem underlying the show: Sure, it's fun--but is it art? The question is as rigged as any of Barnum's sideshows. Joseph's work is art because it carries the indicia of artiness. The work appears in sanctioned high-art venues, is written about in the art press. Under its glittering pop-culture surface lies an elitist, P.C. agenda. In case you miss the signifiers, wall text helps you along. Here, we see Joseph casting a critical eye on hegemony, on first-world thinking, on the dominant culture. There, we see that she isn't really dumbing down art, lowering standards, substituting cheap sensation for learning and learned discourse; in fact, quite the opposite.

The joke is that it's all sleight of hand. Joseph's work is part and parcel of the dominant first-world aesthetic: anti-art art. Purportedly designed for the masses, it is seen by the cognoscenti in hip, out-of-the-way venues in flyover land. Meanwhile, up in New York, Maw and Paw are lined up at the Met, or visiting Van Gogh at the MoMA. Conceptual art like Joseph's doesn't make the turnstiles spin, but it does provide anti-elitist cover in a time of shrinking audiences and budget crunches. And for this reason, it's slicker than any carny-show promoter.

But you can't fool all the people all the time, and there are certain truths I hold to be self-evident. When a Texan starts talking Jesus, you must keep one hand on your wallet. And when art-world types start talking democracy, you must run, not walk, the other way. Go ahead, indulge your baser instincts. Enjoy the show, but don't be a sucker. Forty years of such rationalizations, of highfalutin blather about democracy and appealing to the masses, of $5 words gussying up nickel concepts, have led to little more than disingenuous argument about the virtues of Norman Rockwell and Liberace. In short, work like Pamela Joseph's, while entertaining and astonishingly energetic and well-intentioned, paves much of the highway to Art Hell.

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Christine Biederman