Art Carnies: ‘Sideshow of the Absurd’ at Shortsfest

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times

If You Go …

What: “Pamela Joseph’s Sideshow of the Absurd” at Aspen Shortsfest

When: Saturday, April 11, 5:30 p.m. program

Where: Wheeler Opera House

Cost: $15/general admission; $12/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info:

Pamela Joseph’s long-running and ever-evolving traveling multimedia art show “Sideshow of the Absurd” begs the question, “How did she come up with this stuff?”

A pair of filmmakers have attempted to answer that question, profiling the Aspen-based artist and her off- kilter creations in “Pamela Joseph’s Sideshow of the Absurd,” which premieres Saturday at Shortsfest.

The interactive exhibition, inspired by carnivals and freak shows, is as nostalgic as it is haunting — by turns wickedly amusing, creepy, whimsical and disturbing. Joseph grew up in Connecticut, where her grandparents’ farm was regularly rented out to traveling circuses and freak shows. The imagery of those spectacles from the 1940s stuck with her. Born in Joseph’s West Buttermilk studio, “Sideshow of the Absurd” uses the familiar imagery of old-time traveling circuses to explore themes that have interested her throughout her career, including feminine empowerment and exploitation.

“When I went to the sideshows as a child, these people had tremendous dignity,” she recalled recently over coffee at Victoria’s Espresso & Wine Bar. “They had more dignity than a lot of people in the audience.”

“I like the films they’ve been doing, where it’s the human aspect and it’s kind of edgy, which the ‘Sideshow’ is, too.”Pamela JosephArtist

In 1998, as she was contemplating a shift in artistic focus, she began drawing the sideshow scenes from her memory.

“I realized I wanted to work in a lot of different mediums,” she explained. “So the sideshow became a conceit for me, about my feelings about society, the environment, animals — it opened up a huge door for me.”

She wanted spinning wheels and flashing lights, she dreamed of a Dancing Three-Legged Alligator, she imagined wood-burned images on a woman’s body in an old-style, shooting-gallery boardwalk game, an interactive Coney Island ball toss, and she needed the sounds of carnival barkers and calliope music and women in peril and crying children. But she didn’t know how to make any of of it.

“It’s better to be ignorant going into these things,” Joseph said. “If you really knew what you were getting into, you just wouldn’t do it.”

With the help of locals such as Tim Murray (“He’s like Rube Goldberg!”), Joseph jerry-rigged windshield wipers to initially create the moving parts of “Sideshow.” She learned new process, such as carving wood. She collected antiques and the detritus of carnivals past, like merry-go-round unicorns, and repurposed them for the show. As the concept grew, she consulted with her partner Robert Brinker, multimedia and tech experts around the U.S. and a crew she’s dubbed her “art carnies” to create her spectacular sculptural installation. The biggest challenge was an Alien Fortune Teller piece, which used digital technology to project a video performance by Joseph herself as the fortune teller onto a carved mannequin head. When a visitor places a palm on the alien’s hand, Joseph’s ghostly visage spouts absurd fortunes taken from world leaders and self-help books.

“That took years from the concept to being able to do what I wanted to do,” she explained. “It was a huge exploration.”

She diligently researched carnivals, along with the cultural baggage and archetypes behind their traditions.

“It’s all based on historical fact,” she said. “That’s been a fascinating aspect of it.”

The complexly rendered and multi-faceted pieces delve into the subjugation of women, extinction of species, prejudice and tolerance. On the surface, though, it’s one of the more child-friendly art shows you’ll find.

“Each piece has a lot of psychological meaning, even though my granddaughter can walk in there,” Joseph said. “She’s not going to get the sexual innuendo.”

“Sideshow of the Absurd” was staged in its first iteration in a 2,500-square-foot gallery at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in 2001. It’s since been exhibited in 10 different locations, as word of mouth about it has spread around the U.S. The version captured in the new film is an immersive, interactive show nearly three times the size of the original, hosted by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 2013.

Joseph compares the show to an accordion, growing in some spaces, shrinking in others.

Aspen Film, the nonprofit that presents Shortsfest, also had a role in making the film. The organization’s co-director, Laura Thielen, introduced Joseph to filmmakers Tina Defelisiantonio and Jane C. Wagner, whose previous projects have tacked social-justice issues, LGBT rights and sustainable energy. Joseph trusted the pair to capture the essence of her “Sideshow” and her life.

“I like the films they’ve been doing, where it’s the human aspect and it’s kind of edgy, which the ‘Sideshow’ is, too,” Joseph said.

After spending her career speaking through her art, however, Joseph was wary of opening up about her personal life with the documentarians. The film draws a parallel between Joseph’s divorce from her first husband and her art’s focus on feminine empowerment.

“They always wanted to put in more personal things,” Joseph said. “I’m an artist and I’m a private person and I don’t need to have my life sensationalized, so we’re still battling over that.”

Joseph started visiting Aspen in the late 1970s and moved here in 1990, while exhibiting her work internationally. She’s shown frequently in local galleries such as Harvey Meadows, and while she is bold in her artwork, she’s bashful about the film playing in front of her hometown crowd this weekend.

“I tend to keep a low profile, so for me to be on the big screen is not a perfect situation,” she said. “But ‘Sideshow of the Absurd’ is something that took on a life of its own. It became bigger than me.”

As the film premieres Saturday at Aspen Shortsfest, a new show from Joseph opened in New York City last week and runs through May. Titled “Censored,” the series of paintings, showing at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, depict great works of art that have been censored in Iranian art books. Nudity in works by masters such as Degas and Pablo Picaso have been pixilated in reproductions there — a bizarre practice that unsurprisingly caught Joseph’s eye. She’s painted the censored versions.

“It’s so timely now,” she said of the new series. “If you think about Charlie Hebdo and current issues surrounding censorship.”

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