One of Madison’s great havens for local artists is soon to be relocated, but not without a final exhibit that celebrates one aspect the space has always emphasized: spectacle. Beginning tomorrow, the Project Lodge will display a menagerie of works composed by four local artists centered on the highly theatrical theme of the circus. They call it “Marvel House.”
The artists navigate the charm and enchantment of the circus through various media, including prints, paintings and installations, while exploring, and to some extent evaluating, its morals. As it turned out, their feelings associated with historical circus ethics of using animals and people didn’t quite match their anticipation. A visit to Baraboo, the “circus capital of the world,” provided revelations of disenchantment that conflicted with popular views of the circus as glorious spectacle.
According to Jessica Doing, one of the Marvel House artists, it became apparent at a circus museum in Baraboo the circus spectacle is actually layered with depressing undertones.
“We were nostalgic for the feelings we had about the circus when we were younger, and we all wanted to be dazzled and inspired,” Doing explained. “But even when it did dazzle us, there were feelings of guilt. … It was a much sadder experience than we had anticipated.”
Doing laid out some circus history that further disassociated childhood awe from circus reality. The concept originated in Roman civilization, where performers, often slaves, and animals were taken advantage of in barbaric fashion. And while society has long abandoned the brutal gladiatorial aspects and more recently let go of freak show exploitations, Doing noted animals largely still suffer, to the uninformed pleasure of audiences everywhere.
The tragedy of the circus didn’t deter the group from choosing it as the motif for their exhibit however. The disillusion in fact plays a critical role in the works by Doing, Olivia Baldwin, Katie Garth and Sigrid Hubertz, who all study art at UW. In a way, it has allowed them to re-examine the circus and represent it in a non-traditional light through diverse means.
“We’re approaching it in different ways,” Doing said. “My particular interest lies in how the modern circus hasn’t changed much from when it was created, and what that means for people today.”
Olivia Baldwin, whose art is more abstract than the others, said she isn’t especially concerned with audiences searching for the inspiration of the art, but rather what the final product means to those viewing it.
“I’m encouraging people to analyze what’s happening in the art,” she said.
There also exists a sort of meta-experience in the exhibit itself. As Garth explained, they plan to orient the place as a circus-like scene in itself:
“In addition to thinking about circus as spectacle, we’re thinking about gallery as spectacle, and in some ways we’re conforming to these traditional approaches to showing work, but I think we’re also trying to defy that.”
How the layout plays out is anyone’s guess. It probably won’t evoke any desolate emotions — that’s for the art to present. Instead, the venture into the gallery space will pull on the threads of lighter traditional circus fare.
Thus, for one week, the circus is visiting Madison, but it’s not Barnum & Bailey. This spectacle is not entirely sadness, but it’s real — no smoke and mirrors. Four unique styles across a span of media elaborately portray the complexities of a fabulous tradition with dark implications. Audiences everywhere are invited to join in the curiosities and draw their own conclusions.
The “Marvel House” exhibit will be shown at the Project Lodge at 817 E. Johnson St. Sept. 22-29. There will be an opening reception Sept. 22 from 6-9 p.m. Admission is free.
Editor’s note: UW art student Sigrid Hubertz also works as The Badger Herald’s design director.