Edleman provides haven for circus freaks, lovers

By Stephanie Mielcarek

In 1997, Elizabeth Ernst gave up a successful advertising career to follow the circus. The aspiring artist visited and photographed various carnivals throughout the Midwest, Coney Island, and even the circus museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. She also photographed old, used, and weathered toys, focusing on issues of aging, identity, and beauty.

For The G.E. Circus, Ernst created her own circus, complete with a cast of more than 25 characters—each of whom has a body molded of Sculpey (an artists’ modeling compound) and a twisted, gray life story to match.

Walking into the Edelman Gallery, I found a tabletop full of tiny figurines making up a whimsical circus, complete with acrobats, jugglers, and a brightly colored circus truck. I soon discovered, though, that this circus is far more macabre than it originally appears. Front and center, next to a sign proudly proclaiming “THE G.E. CIRCUS & SIDESHOW” sits a lone girl, tilting to one side and gazing into the distance, her thin hair mussed and windblown. On a bench to her left sit two similarly misshapen individuals—Oscar the Elephant Man and an unnamed figure consisting merely of a torso, a head, and feet—both looking equally gloomy. The colorful van behind them proclaims “SIDESHOW—FREAKS—ALIVE.”

Past the cast of performers, I entered the gallery proper, and encountered a wall of what seemed at first glance to be paintings of the performers in various scenes. Once again, though, the first impression Ernst gives her viewers is never the one they leave with. Each of the works on the wall is actually a photograph of one or more of her tiny cast of performers, printed and then brushed over with gelatin silver print and embellished in places with acrylic and tissue to produce a dreamlike effect.

In “It Took Her Four Hours to Get Ready for Her Performance,” a woman stands in front of a mirror, gazing at her reflection. A single, bare light bulb hangs overhead. Her misshapen body is in sharp contrast to the smiling faces in the tiny photographs, presumably of “normal” relatives, that line the mirror.

Also on exhibit is a wall of portraits, complete with brief printed biographies of their subjects. Included are such figures as “Knuckles the Clown,” “Oscar (the Elephant Man),” and “Audrey Margaret Kelly, Horse Trainer.” Each stares blankly at the viewer or looks obliquely into the distance. The biographies are evidence of their advancing age, their inability to mesh with the world they left before they joined the circus, and—above all—their undesirability in that world. The circus has offered them another life, but left them gray and essentially featureless. Bright moments shine through, though. Underneath the picture of a man described as alcoholic and depressed are these words: “He has said that being ‘Knuckles’ has saved him from himself.”

Ernst has created a world in which freakishness is the norm, color is not only a rare occurrence but also a threatening one, and not even the performers themselves really seem to belong. The photographed subjects are chalky white, and most of the works’ color exists in objects from the “real” world: an animal trainer’s basketball, a rider’s costume, the proliferation of signs reading “Freaks! Live!”

There is very little action in Ernst’s works, but a world of depth in the subjects’ sculpted poses and expressions. They stare out into the world of the viewer or turn back to look into their own gray surroundings. Above all, her pictures give off a sense of stagnancy, of life amidst dust, memories and unfulfilled hopes. There are fleeting moments of beauty, though—subjects holding hands or posing proudly for their photos—and these are the images that keep The G.E. Circus from becoming a freak show itself.

Dan Estabrook’s works are similarly colorless and introspective, but form a less cohesive whole. In Nine Symptoms, he attempts to convey the bodily changes one experiences when falling in love. These photos are stark, often somber. “Loss of Appetite” shows a man’s profile in silhouette, his esophagus replaced by a cutout noose.

The Sleep series is equally austere, but more strikingly presents Estabrook’s contemplations on dreams. One pair of photos shows two hands, the first against a dark background, with the word “never” trailing in script from its fingers. The second shows the same hand, reversed and mirroring the other upon a white background, with “forever” written in backwards, mirrored script. With images like these, Estabrook vividly depicts the contradictory yet often insightful nature of dreams.

In both series, Estabrook creates pictures of himself and others—and various parts of each—using the old-fashioned photographic techniques of calotype paper negative and salt print positive. This process, which results in sepia-toned or stark black-and-white images, lends itself aptly to the quiet, half-waking delirium of Sleep. In Nine Symptoms, though, his almost medical imagery depicts a frightening, chilled version of love.

The Catherine Edelman Gallery, located at 300 West Superior Street, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.