Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Carnival Arts

There is a school of American performance acts known as the "Western Arts" that includes whip cracking, trick-roping, knife throwing, and all those other circusy side-show type entertainment you'd see at a carnival or a State Fair. I would argue there is also a brand of visual art, wholly American, called the Carnival Arts, and it comprises the good, the bad, and the weird stuff you see as you trawl up the midway at any traveling show. And yes, even though caricature's tendrils reach out into respectable museum art (even Da Vinci drew "grotesqueries" after all!) we caricature artists are definitely members of this club. 

Another member of this club, a t-shirt painter named Spencer, introduced himself this year, said he liked my style, and sat for a drawing. It was a rainy day, my materials weren't performing well, and I was revising the drawing in my head even as I finished it--so I'll try again in Tampa. But he was a fun fellow and longtime crewmember of the circuit, and he was well-aquainted with the other artists in my crew. In the off-season, Spencer also works with a few of the other t-shirt painters doing black-light glowing murals for roller rinks and bowling alleys and the like. I was blown away by his t-shirt airbrushing abilities when I visited his stand later on. 

We will return to Spencer in a bit . . . for now, I want to take you on a tour. Any place you go can be a museum if you pay attention. Let me be your carny docent as we walk the hallowed halls of carnival art . . . 

Be careful, some of this stuff might show up in your nightmares later . . . 
These clown head garbage-can toppers in particular are memorable. Warhol would have liked them. (Sorry, Ben, I only had eight photos, so you get to complete the grid. Warhol would have liked you too.)

A lot of the hand-painted work doesn't bother worrying about copyrights or trademarked characters . . . 
I mean, calling Spiderman a Tramp (on a sign for the bungee trampolines) is one thing, but it does take an extra-big set of cajones to put up some bootlegged mouse art in Florida, for Pete's sake . . . 
And in this artwork on a ride called "The Fighter," we see the painter simply copied a topless photograph of MAD artist Tom Richmond without even crediting him as the model . . . 
The nerve. 

But seriously, airbrushing is still alive and well at the carnival. Big and small examples of airbrush art are everywhere. 
Did I say alive and well? Maybe not altogether well. There were some not-quite-ready-for-prime-time pieces here and there, but even the awful can be fun to look at. Like this spacey scene, starring the hovercraft-driving love child of Napoleon Dynamite and Buck Rogers?
Orange space codpiece for the win!

But hey, it's hand painted. As an airbrusher and carnival arts connoissuer, I frown upon the cut-and-paste jobs. 
This haunted funhouse had monsters lifted from (I'm just guessing) Heavy Metal and other sources, just writ large--you can't see it from these photos but the resolution was so low that it stood out like a sore thumb, screaming "I was googled and screen-grabbed and printed way larger than I was ever meant to be!" Ughhh. 

But this one hurt my head. 

"Avenger Kids" showed slightly more effort--someone went through the trouble of pasting headshots (of their relatives, from catalogs, who knows?) onto bodies of Halloween costume models. Not sure what bothers me more--the reappropriation of child models or the implication that Supergirl and Wonder Woman are Avengers. 

But several attractions were, indeed, works of art. The "Enterprise" ride had been my favorite since I saw it last year. 
I apologize, the lighting is never great for photos, as the ride is highly reflective, and I do not have proper authorization to climb up and get close-ups, but the thing absolutely takes your breath away in person. Colors are vivid, the likenesses of Nimoy, Pine, and Quinto are spot-on, and it's just FUN

Some of the funhouses have been repainted over the past few years with some clever work. 

Check out that lion's expression. That was done by a cartoonist who gives a shit. That's a proper lion. Great use of guard rails to look like a cage, too. 

More great airbrushing stuff. The light touch of anime on the dame in the lower right panel makes me wonder if it was done by some gang of younger artists, but it has a lot of other markers that tell me it's done by someone old-school. 

Hmmm. Wait a second. I walked back and saw that all the really great funhouse paintings were done by this TJAho/TJ the Painter guy (or gal). My admiration and curiousity grew, and I vowed to google him (or her) later. Something about the work made me wonder if this person worked as a caricature artist previously. 

Later on, I asked Benjamin if he had any favorite carnival art that I should scope out before the whole thing pulled up stakes. "Anything by TJ" he told me. Ah yes, I agreed, I really liked the ones by TJ I had seen. Wait--you sound pretty familiar, the way you said that, have you met this guy? I asked. "Well yeah, he's right down there, he's Spencer's boss. He did the Enterprise Star Trek ride too." Ben smiled. He knows I love me some Star Trek.

HOLY SMOKES, this incredible painter is right here, just down the row from us, spraying Spongebobs on shirts the whole time??? 

I walked over after the midway lights shut off on closing night, and introduced myself. He gave me a hearty handshake and told me he'd seen Spencer's caricature (I winced). 

TJ is really nice guy, just as I'd been told, and he was happy to share his story (and okay with me sharing it here). Turns out he had been a caricature artist down in Opryland, back in the eighties, and he'd gotten his start in that using the lecturer's chalk pallette and glove--just like I did, a few years later in Baltimore. We sat there naming names for a while, seeing if we knew any of the same people from back in the day. We didn't hit on any right away, but this business is like the Kevin Bacon game--given enough time, you discover connections. 

He told me of his many years mentoring with Bill Browning, a legendary carnival and sideshow painter. He does standard brushpainting and airbrush too, and he said Bill taught him some special tricks for getting the carnival look just right. Bill is a painter of some repute, he lives in the "carny town" of Gibtown, FL, and he is getting on in years, suffering from Alzheimers from what TJ had heard. We both exhaled a small lamentation on that--it is a sad and familiar feeling to lose a mentor. He offerred to run up to his loft and grab a painting Bill had gifted him to show me (his loft was in the trailer that his airbrush operation was housed in, just yards away from us), but I told him I didn't want to delay his closing procedures any further, and maybe I could check it out in Tampa. 

I do not know if Bill Browning had anything to do with these sideshow signs, but they were the "sideshow art" I saw at the South Florida Fair. Certainly a niche all its own. 

I googled Bill Browning and went down some dimly-lit channels of the internet. Photo essays, some writing done by sideshow performers, a few regional articles. I am nosy, and the internet is vast, but there wasn't a whole lot out there. Still, the carnival is its own internet, and "famous" in the carnival doesn't necessarily mean "famous" on the internet. As I said, my "research" on TJ consisted of walking half a block and shaking his hand. He says he has a facebook page but ignores it, and his website is in woeful need of attention but he hasn't found the time because he's so busy getting work by word-of-mouth. 

You can see TJ's site at http://tjthepainter.com/
in the meantime, or keep an eye out for his signature at the next carnival or roller rink you visit!

1 comment:

  1. Hello, would artwork from a ride done by Mr Browning be of any value to you? I may know where sone pieces are still but large 3x6 ones I can't easily store. Thank you. Pegasusfeathers @ gmail.com