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Humor is the key
Humor is the key

Freaky Dignity

One thing's for sure: "The Sideshow of the Absurd," which has taken over the entire first floor of the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, is easily the most bizarre show to hit South Florida in a very long time. And I mean that in a good way, at least for museumgoers with a sense of humor and a sense of adventure.

The exhibition is characterized in its wonderfully garish catalog -- which comes complete with a CD and 16 temporary tattoos inspired by the show -- as an installation, although given its size, I prefer to think of it as more of an extended series of linked installations and related works, such as drawings and banners. No one component on its own would have an impact to match the cumulative impact of the whole show.

As the title indicates, this is literally a "sideshow," as in an old-fashioned carnival show preoccupied with freaks of various sorts. And just as those sideshows exploited their subjects shamelessly, Colorado-based Pamela Joseph takes a savage delight in exploring the extremes of humanity, using a variety of mechanical devices and accessories.


"The Sideshow of the Absurd"

Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood

On display through May 4. Call 954-921-3274.

The instant you enter the museum's main gallery, you'll be assaulted by the harsh colored lights and spotlights that seem to have been strung throughout the space. In some areas, such sideshow slogans as "Alive in Person" and "Death Defying" are projected onto the walls. And everywhere you look are big, colorful, varnished canvas banners touting sideshow attractions: Unicorn Rides, Alien Fortune Teller, Jungle Cat Girl, Joined Twins.

Joseph also renders many of these attractions in three dimensions, and most of them are interactive, with little knobs or handles of various sorts that encourage you to give them a spin. Right off, for instance, you're confronted with The Shooting Gallery/Balancing Bingo, which has rows of ducks and fish that noisily crisscross before you while a life-size female figure moves back and forth in front of a distorting funhouse mirror.

A few feet away is The Lady Swordswallower, a bikini-clad Amazonian woman who could have stepped right out of the pages of an R. Crumb comic. When activated, she slowly slides a long sword in and out of her mouth. (The sexual implications are unmistakable.) Across the gallery, there's The Strongwoman Catgirl, a female sculpture in a leopard-print one-piece bathing suit and a cat mask, hoisting Max, the World's Largest Housecat (inspired by the artist's deceased pet) above her head to the sound of cat screeches.

Most of these mechanized sculptures have a sound component, and it's a little unnerving to have several of them activated at once, with their voices and sound effects resonating through the galleries. One piece at the far end of the show features carousel animals that rotate to the sound of buzzing bees. A piece in the middle gallery, Tiny Town/Conjoined Twins, plays a seemingly never-ending argument between a man and a woman: "Yes," says the man. "No," counters the woman. "Why not?" "Never." "Maybe." "I don't think so." And so on.

The quality of most of the recordings is intentionally poor, the better to re-create the sideshow experience. One exception is Alien Fortune Teller. Instead of dispensing a little card with your fortune printed on it, the piece invites you to activate it by placing your hand on a three-fingered representation of a hand. Suddenly, the fortune teller's molded head lights up, with an intense-to-the-point-of-creepy female face projected onto its contours from within, as she speaks your fortune.

In true sideshow fashion, some pieces actually beckon you into them with big "Enter" signs. You have to stoop to get into Interior: The Headless Woman Scrim Room, an architecturally skewed little space with dozens of Joseph's drawings, paintings, and studies tacked to the wall, many featuring the same figures you see elsewhere in the exhibition, some in black and white, some in color.

The Oddities Tent houses four pieces: The Head in the Suitcase, which features just what the title describes; The Invulner-able Woman, which has a female figure rotating on a dartboard; The Dancing Three-Legged Alligator Lady, which consists of a bald female head and bust perched atop a tripod splayed on a mirror; and The Singing Torso, which, again, is what the title describes, set on a rotating dais.

Perhaps the show's most elaborate installation is Interior: The Torture Museum. The mechanical part of it is a huge rotating disco ball on a large disk, which in turn rests on the bottom half of a female mannequin that has clearly seen a lot of wear and tear. A large stretch of the adjacent wall displays the rest of the installation: dozens of various-size pieces of wood, some in the shapes of animals and plants, with etchings of women in various situations burned into them. One wooden panel among them reads: "You should see this show. The knives are short and sharp. See how they shine. She shows she is not afraid."

You don't have to read all the posted excerpts from the catalog's introduction (by fellow artist Larry Rivers) to figure out that Joseph is preoccupied with the female condition. Her subject matter is almost always the female form, usually in some state of distress, using her sideshow imagery to highlight the trials and tribulations of women.

Most notably, however, Joseph's women are survivors. The sword swallower swallows her sword again and again. The catgirl shows off her strength by brandishing her cat like a set of barbells. Even Joseph's many variants of a headless woman who appears to be hooked up to some strange life-support system have their own weird dignity.

Fortunately, the artist's sense of the whimsical keeps her feminism from becoming heavy-handed. As she says in the catalog interview: "Humor is the key. It draws people in closer and then, once you have them engaged, hopefully they will be able to become aware of deeper messages. I don't have any need or desire to preach, but I hope to confront viewers with some of the absurdities that fate and chance bring into our lives and suggest an awareness of our vulnerability and our childlike side."


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