Clowns Art Us 

What is it with artists and clowns? It might have something to do with their uncanny ability to make people laugh and squirm uncomfortably at the same time, or the notion that their costume gives them immunity to perform all manner of prohibited acts (like the Joker). Still, after Bruce Nauman’s “Clown Torture” video installation, it’s a little unclear what more the clowns populating so much contemporary art can teach us. Two artists with current exhibitions have cast clown communities as their stars and, though similar, neither is joking around.

In her exhibition The Bondage of Decay at Marc Jancou Contemporary, Marnie Weber tells a new chapter in the biblical narrative she’s been developing about the Spirit Girls, a troupe of female ghost clowns. The show brings together a series of collages that see the Super Girls dying in a shipwreck, and a set of life-sized clown sculptures representing their ghostly forms. With this gloriously colorful grotesques set in a circle around a sacrificial female form, Weber might be making a feminist point about social body image and beauty, or addressing the issues of social performance, masks and the idealized, true selves they supposedly conceal. Never closing off one reading of her work in favor of another, Weber balances the kind of happy wonder such installations always provoke with a decidedly creepy subtext. Just like meeting real clowns – or, if we take her point to heart, just like meeting real people.

At Andrea Rosen Gallery, Nigel Cooke manages to downplay clowns’ creepiness in favor of a kind of post-apocalyptic melancholy. Against stripped, monochrome backdrops and in small painted bronze heads, his clown-like figures – who might also be homeless men, gnomes or some species of troll – look like the last mutated survivors of some devastated version of our world. Here, as with Weber, the implication is that we are all clowns, too caught up in our self-serious trifles to realize how pathetic we look. Not that Cooke’s exhibition is a guilt trip – more a pretty pity session for tragic, sympathetic characters who’ve lost something they didn’t expect to miss so much. Like Weber’s clowns, Cooke’s characters have developed coping mechanisms – as we all do – standing next to their artworks as if pitching their latest creations to gallery viewers.

Whether mourning or moving on, Weber and Cooke offer the clown as a sympathetic figure (something like the endearing horror movie monster), rather than an unpleasant uncanny character. Ultimately, the intricacies of Weber’s multi-show narrative can get lost in the spectacular installation of her work. Cooke, meanwhile, cloaks his exhibition in a haze of somber palettes that immediately softens the bizarre figures’ impact. To their credit, though, neither artist sticks to the facile creepy prankster archetype epitomized in Stephen King’s IT. Apparently, then, clowns can still teach us something, even if it’s simply that we’re all clowns, in a way. No joke.

Marnie Weber at Marc Jancou Contemporary, until June 6.
Nigel Cooke at Andrea Rosen Gallery, until May 30.

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