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Humor Arts Museum

Uplifting Humorous Art In All Media

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Art of the Ring:
CIRCUScenes


Curated by
Karen E. Gersch

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Art of the Ring: CIRCUScenes

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Curator Karen E. Gersch

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Welcome to my favorite place - the magic that unfurls within a circus ring! It’s no secret that circus has served to inspire, enthrall and intrigue artists around the world. Since the start of time - as far back as 4,000 years ago - acrobats, jugglers and tumblers have been depicted carved in stone, shaped in clay and painted in frescos and well-preserved scrolls. The lure is easy to explain. Dynamics of color and composition, life-risking physical feats, mesmerizing movement, the raucous play of clowns and wizardry of objects and people flung, spun, rotated, tossed and deftly caught again. For this exhibit, I have selected a fine palette of artists: classic and legendary ones, as well as contemporary painters, sculptors, photographers and printmakers. The styles and mediums, the focus on specified acts and apparatus differ; but they all share the excitement, high energy, gleeful radiance and an appreciation for the beauty of agile bodies in the air. Step right up and let your spirits lift: the round world welcomes you! 

Curator Karen E. Gersch

Photo by Jim Moore
VIRTUAL RECEPTION for Art of the Ring CIRCUScenes - May 7, 2023

Featured Artists

MIA WOLFF

PAUL GUTHEIL
PHILOMENA MARANO 

PABLO ROIG

ELI ROSS 

JOSIAH H. DEARBORN

KAREN E. GERSCH

DAME LAURA KNIGHT

FERNANDO BOTERO

PAUL KLEE
CELSO LAGAR

HENRI ACHILLE ZO

JEF RABILLON & PAT BELLAND

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PHILOMENA MARANO
High Flyer | 2021
Hand cut paper | 25.5 x 19.25" framed | $1700
Print unframed | $400 | Buy

Marano illustrates the exultation of release - flying above a clouded sky, tethered only by one’s ankles - with her intricately cut paper painting, reminiscent of Henri Matisse.

 

JEF RABILLON | PAT BELLAND (clown)
Les Enfants
Black/white  photograph | 8 x 10" unframed | $75 | Buy   
 

Children are the greatest judges of what is funny and meaningful. Rabillon has been accompanying silent clown Pat Belland to foreign countries since 2015, with their shared photo-documentary project called “KlownKonzept”. Together they roam the globe, Belland engaging all he meets, from infants to elders; Rabillon chronicling the comic chaos of his improvisations in riveting black and white images.

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PABLO ROIG
Cirque | 1911

Limited edition color lithograph |  19 x 14" |  NFS

Collection of Karen Gersch 

Greatly influenced by Toulouse Lautrec and Degas, ROIG

added his own delicate touch to the paintings and lithographs he created. As an acrobat, I appreciate the well-aligned and perfectly balanced head-to- head trick he depicts here. The loose arms and straddled legs indicates his knowledge of form and acrobatic prowess.

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MIA WOLFF
Circus Trunk | 1991
Oil on linen | 40 x 60" | $7,000 | Buy

With a dramatic, vivid palette, Wolff has created a stunning

portrait of her own steamer trunk with many-hued costumes spilling forth, from her travels as a catcher in a trapeze act. All of the sequined, rhinestoned outfits were designed and sewn by her partner Donna Orosz.

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KAREN E. GERSCH
Chair Balancer | 2001      

Ink on paper | 9 x 12" | $400 | Buy

For 26 years, I attended the Circus Festival in Paris (Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain), sketching live every act that graced the ring. Hand balancers who held their poses were my favorite, as it gave me seconds more to capture them in seemingly single strokes with my pen.

                      

PAUL GUTHEIL
Gordoon
Color photograph | 8 x 10" unframed | $50 | Buy

If there is a single clown who captured the hearts of Big Apple Circus audiences, as well as Gutheil’s discerning eye, it is Jeff Gordon,

a.k.a. Gordoon. For more than a decade, his antics and ingenious physical comedy delighted everyone under the little top.

                                  

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JOSIAH H. DEARBORN
Hoop Acrobat | 2018
Silver and brass earring | 2.5" diameter | NFS
Collection of Jessica Hentoff

Dearborn - a celebrated silversmith - usually designs rings, bracelets and creatures inspired by nature and geometrics. The theme of circus was a new venture: exploring how to make jewelry depicting performers. His first pieces were jugglers; a small hand holding a ball, then two hands with an arc of balls that were illuminated by touch.

Hoop Acrobat worn on model's ear

 

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PHILOMENA MARANO
Globe of Thunder | 2020
Limited Edition Print | 21.5 x 26.5" | $500 | Buy

One of the more dangerous and certainly the loudest

of contemporary circus acts involve racing motorcycles within a giant steel mesh globe. The riders cycle simultaneously, turning 360 degrees as they circumvent. Marano has intensified the act with her dramatic choice of colors and well designed perception of depth.

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MIA WOLFF
Visitation | 2008

Oil on linen | 14 x 40" | NFS 
 

Wolff’s art reflects not only on circus imagery, but her studies and involvement with the spiritual world. She taught Pilates, as well as aerial work for many years, and is now a practitioner of Yoga. The great Guru, Meher Baba, has appeared in both her writing and her paintings.

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ELI ROSS
Balancing Elephants
Cast resin | 5.5 x 5.5" | NFS

Ross perfectly captures the two main tricks that

circus elephants learn - remarkable feats of equilibrium given the weight and bulk of their bodies.

 

    

KAREN E. GERSCH
Backlot, Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus
Mixed media on cold press | 13 x 19" framed | $945 | Buy

This was painted from a grainy black and white photo I took with

a cheap Instamatic camera - all I had back then in 1969 - when Clyde Beatty came to Rockland County. I am still enamored of grass root shows that set up in fields and local meadows... sadly, fewer and fewer these days.

       

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PHILOMENA MARANO
Circus Peanuts | 2023
Ebony pencil, watercolor | 8 x 10" | $225 | Buy
 

Who doesn’t crave or associate popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs and peanuts with visiting circus?! Marano makes a charming portrait of a small familiar bag, to tug at our appetites.

PAUL GUTHEIL
Red Fedoras

Color photograph | 8 x 10" unframed | $50 | Buy

Llamas, affectionate and smart, make good partners for comedy.  This amusing duo need do anything more than pose in matching hats to delight a pre-show audience.  Gutheil has a knack for finding great comic moments backlot, as well as in the ring.

                

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JEF RABILLON | PAT BELLAND (clown)
Voila!
Black/white  photo | 8 x 10" unframed | $75 | Buy   

The exuberant focus of this French passerby as he interacts with Pat Belland's charismatic clown, is evident and joyous.  Belland has a history of working in circus, but chooses to exercise his buffoon on streets in foreign countries now.  Commissioned by festivals in Asia and Europe, he sets out with only his worn suitcase and Rabillon in tow.

DAME LAURA KNIGHT
Comedy Riders

Oil on canvas. | 25 x 29.9" | NFS

One can only imagine the physical humor of these performers on horseback; the top hatted balancer about to launch into a move from his sideways position on the horse’s rump. As always, Dame Laura Knight creates the perfect mood and lighting in this painted scene.

                

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JOSIAH H. DEARBORN
Tiger

Silver and brass earring | 3" diameter | NFS

Private collection

Dearborn used the Hoop as a catalyst for his circus jewelry designs; first an acrobat on German Wheel and here, a tiger leaping through the hoop.

      

FERNANDO BOTERO
Flying Trapeze

Circus People  | NFS

Classic Botero: the psychological intrigue and inclusion of various circus artists that enliven his compositions.  Rich hues of bold colors, with a prominance of reds and golds.  The delicacy of his shading and shadows, the small dramas enacted between individuals; gazes averted and carefully poised. 

                       

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KAREN E. GERSCH
Annie | 2021
Graphite, acrylic and ink on Ingres paper| 9 x 12" | $500 | Buy 
    

I first saw Annie Fratellini in Paris, performing with her students and the faculty of her French Circus School. The show made me weep, being so beautifully choreographed and emotive. Annie reminds me of Fellini’s wife who played Gelsomina in “La Strada”: an elfin or urchin-like quality both women share.

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PAUL KLEE
Traveling Circus | 1937
Oil on canvas | NFS

Collection of Baltimore Museum of Art

Abstract and kooky, but its minimally-placed figures are definitely circus characters, let alone the wonderful textural background and use of color. One might imagine all the tiny circles that compose the background as audience members watching the show.

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JEFF RABILLON | PAT BELLAND (clown)
At the Salon

Black/white  photograph | 8 x 10" unframed | $75 | Buy

Rabillon catches the exact moment in each of his photos that makes us laugh at the situation. Pat has assumed the role of haircutter; his customer fully amused and enjoying the surprise.

 
PHILOMENA MARANO
Umbrella Leap | 2022

Mixed media | 17 x 5.5" | $900 | Buy

I will confess - this is not a trick I have ever seen performed! I don’t doubt Marano’s depiction - it a remarkable feat and I am quite impressed, both by her signature color sense and simple shapes that so well create the mood and tension.

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KAREN E. GERSCH
Rhum | 1983

Casein on cold press | 27 x 17" framed | $950 | Buy

In the early 80’s, while in France, I borrowed a friend’s ancient and rare edition of sepia photographs of famous clowns. The book and images were so fragile, I was nervous handling them. But I managed a dozen sketches of the legends and back in NY, painted them.

PAUL GUTHEIL

On a Roll!       

Color photograph | 8 x 10" unframed | $50 | Buy

Gutheil always manages to snag the perfect time to snap a shot with a bulls-eye moment! Gordoon here in his famous toilet paper routine, which invariably left audiences of all ages howling.

 

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FERNANDO BOTERO

Circus Act | 1970's

Oil on canvas |NFS

A rare subtle sketch from Botero, that has an intimacy and quietude not often found in his signature boisterous, active paintings. Despite their exaggerated size, Botero's figures always possess grace and strength.  There is a practiced rapport between these two aerialists about to ascend the corde; their hands entwined on the rope, their focus on each other.  

DAME LAURA KNIGHT

Musicians | 1930 

​Oil on canvas | NFS 

Original; Private collection

As she often painted performers backlot, as well as in the ring or waiting to go on, Dame Laura Knight likely caught this duo warming up or practicing. There is a dreamy or romantic quality to this painting.

 

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PAUL GUTHEIL

Sultana  | 1951

Sepia photograph | NFS

I included this photo by Gutheil because it’s a beautiful portrait of this elephant (yes, in a zoo, not a circus) but later he would go on to shoot only circus elephants. This was his very first photo of one, taken when he was just 8 years old.

 

DAME LAURA KNIGHT

Circus Matinee | 1938

Oil on canvas | NFS              

(Original: private collection UK)   

 

The illuminated tent and light on the performers waiting to enter the ring, the informal composition and conversations between the players - all articulated so beautifully by Dame Laura Knight. One has to admire the details in the Apaloosas and all the costumes.

          

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PHILOMENA MORANO

Vortex of Doom    

Limited Edition Print |  26.5 x 121.5" | $500 | Buy

With the advent of modern technology and daring ideas, some traditional aerial rigging and circus equipment has been inventively redesigned. Liiving in the circus headquarters of Florida, Morana has the advantage of witnessing such acts and apparatus, such as this combination of a giant wheel, balancing ladder and acrobat suspended by straps.

                                                   

HENRI ACHILLE ZO

The Trapeze | 1928  

Oil on panel | NFS

Original: Musee D'Orsay

I am romanced by the light Zo achieves in this painting, and it’s interesting perspective. We focus on the flyer (no visible net beneath lends a certain tension), as well as the fact that her catcher is not yet in motion.

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PAUL GUTHEIL

Pie in Face

Color photograph | 8 x 10" unframed | $50 | Buy

Could not resist this final photo by Gutheil - the perfect moment that a cream pie finds its target! The slight blur of the thrower’s arm and the stoic stance of the victim adds to the humor.

CELSO LAGAR

Un Cirque Dans La Ville | 1915

Oil on canvas | NFS

Original at Goya Museum

                                            

Less than fifty circuses that tour under tents remain in America. The building on the right and hint of Eiffel in the distance place this in Paris; still Lagar has caught perfectly the charm of a small tented show appearing in a village square. Viva La Cirque and all its inspiring imagery!

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

 

PAT BELLAND

Renaissance man Belland is a sculptor, writer, theater director and clown. He has been a cook and led a youth hostel; all of which have given him a good sense and feeling for people. A longtime circus Ringmaster and Tent Master (we worked a french circus together in the 70’s and 80’s), his clown is an Everyman soul, connecting humanity with each other and delighting all in the process.

 

FERNANDO BOTERO

Born in Medelin, Columbia, Botero is a figurative artist and sculptor, known for his signature oversized individuals of exaggerated volume.  "Boterismo" became a national symbolic term for his style, which often represents political criticism or humor.  As a youth, Botero's uncle wanted him to be a matador and paid for his training.  But an illustration published in the biggest newspaper in the country allowed him to pursue his artistic dreams.  He is considered the most recognized and quoted living artist from Latin America.  

JOSIAH H. DEARBORN

 

A Silversmith and Industrial Designer, whose mother and grandmother were accomplished painters; Dearborn made his first silver piece at the age of 17.  His formal studies include Silvermine School of Art, John Hopkins University and graduate work at Pratt Institute; he holds a degree in Industrial Design from Parsons in NYC.  A designer for Ed Schlossberg Inc., he was part of the design team for the Queens Science Museum, responsible for many of their interactive and audio exhibits.  In 1995, his silver dragon tea caddy won the prestigious Fellisimo/NYFA Art & Design Award. He created 180 audio earrings for Laurie Anderson, which were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and prominent galleries.  Dearborn's work has been included in such publications as: Parkett Art Magazine, Metalsmith Magazine and the Society of North American Goldsmiths.  

KAREN E. GERSCH

Website: Art by KarenEGersch

Enamored of circus since childhood, Gersch has spent a lifetime drawing, painting and performing in shows nationally and internationally.  She has a BFA with Honors from Pratt Institute and is Russian-trained as an acrobatic understander.  Aside from continuing to paint and exhibit, she directs full-length theatrical productions and curates large-scale art exhibitions.  Gersch's historical visual lecture: "A Brush with History: Art in Circus & Circus in Art" has been presented at Sherbrooke University, The Cahoon Museum of American Art, The Rooms Art Museum in Newfoundland and recently, for the Contemporary Circus and Immersive Arts Center in Troy, New York.   

PAUL GUTHEIL

 

Paul saw his first circus in 1948 at the age of six; two years later he took his first photo - of an elephant. Both experiences instilled a deep, lifelong love for circus and photography. Some of his early images were of famed animal trainer Gunther Gebel Williams performing at Madison Sq. Garden (his professional photography career took off in 1969, although he admits that it wasn't until a 1976 visit to Hoxie Great American Circus, that he developed a serious interest in documenting circus).  A member of Circus Fans of America and the Circus Historical Society, he was soon touring and developing personal relationships with all the shows, assisted by his wife Dianne, who supported his passion and focus. Says Paul: "It's the people: fans, show owners, producers, performers, workers, musicians, prop and ring crew staffs that allow me into their lives and by doing so, make my work possible.  If I have ever taken a good circus photo, it is thanks to them, and I am deeply grateful and blessed".

PAUL KLEE  (1879-1940)

The surrealist Swiss-German artist Klee, had a passion for the performing arts - from opera to puppetry - and certainly circus.  At the age of 36, he was consigned to serve as a soldier in the German Reich, but spared the horrors of the front; mostly doing desk work.  In this way, he was able to continue his art work, letting it express his frustrations and responses to the trauma of war.  His work inspired a host of famous American abstract artists: Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell, to name a few.

DAME LAURA KNIGHT

This titled British painter is the most famed circus artist in her country.  She was well known for her portraits and scenic works before her role as court artist for the Nuremberg Trials; an experience that had a tremendous toll on her.  Afterwards, she immersed herself in circus, traveling for several years with small shows, making live studies of performers in their natural light and settings.  She is known for her detail of color and composition, vividly capturing the ambiance and drama of actual scenes both backlot and in the ring.  

CELSO LAGAR  (1891-1966)

The son of a religious sculptor, Lagar was born in Spain in 1891 and in his youth, apprenticed in woodworking with his father.  After studying painting in Barcelona, he moved to Paris in 1912 and like so many artists, became intrigued with circus. Because he suffered from Depression, being around rings of brightly, focused activity cheered him immensely. His work has now been collected in many museums, but back then, he was mostly dependent on his wife - a French sculptor.

PHILOMENA MARANO 

Website: Philomena Marano

Philomena Marano was born in Brooklyn and holds a BFA from Pratt Institute. An enthusiast of the visual poetry of Coney Island, she created a series of cut paper works that spanned decades, in the elegant technique she learned as a studio assistant to preeminent artist Robert Indiana. After moving to Sarasota, Florida in 2017; Marano's attention shifted to the history and lore of the circus. She began a series on circus thrill shows featuring death defying feats of a local circus family, 'The Nerveless Nocks." Her work has been exhibited in and around NY including The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Coney Island Museum and ACA Galleries and in Florida at the Museum of Art in DeLand, The Art Center Sarasota  and Ringling College of Art & Design. Her work is represented in private, corporate and museum collections.

JEF RABILLON

Website: Jef Rabillon photographe, Angers

Rabillon discovered the art of photography as a child in 1970. He turned professional in 1988, embarking on shoots for the National Dance Center of France, the Opera, Compagnie Jo Bithume, other circus, theater and musical groups. In 2015, he joined forces with Pat Belland’s project “KlownKonzept” and began accompanying him to Festivals in foreign cities and villages, to document his antics and impromptu encounters with people on the streets.

 

PABLO ROIG

 

(1879-1955) Spanish-born Roig attended the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona, before traveling (he lived in Paris for two years) and exhibiting in prestigious Salons and Art Festivals.  In 1911, he published “Cirque” - a series of lithographs of circus scenes, as inspired and influenced by Toulouse Lautrec and Japanese art.  I was introduced to Roig by my good friend Shirley who gifted me with this original print she found in London.  

 

ELI ROSS 

 

Eli Ross contributed several pieces to our previous exhibition: "Contemporary Sculptors and Photographers".  He learned his craft in his youth, apprenticing to foundries run by his uncle and brother, and becoming an expert in cast resin and polymer sculpting.  These two figures are the prototypes for pieces cast and sold in the Gift Shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Elephants - beloved trunked giants - certainly stars of Ringling Bros. for over a hundred years - were phased out in 2016, and retired to a wildlife sanctuary in Florida.  Ross, likewise, retired to Florida years ago, where he continues to make small organic works from wood, shells and rocks he finds on beaches.  

MIA WOLFF 

Website: http://www.wolffland.com

Mia Wolff grew up climbing trees, drawing and reading.  After art school and a period of downtown art life, she went off with the circus as a catcher in a double trapeze act.  She eventually returned to NYC and painting.  A week after signing her first book contract ("Catcher", a children's book), her son was born.  Her life then became being a Mom and painting.  Her second book was a graphic novel with Samuel Delany: "Bread and Wine".  Her third book "Above and Below: The Voyages of Virgilio" - an illustrated fable in verse - was recently published. She is currently working on a fourth book, "The Empty Lot", which is a monograph of her paintings, interwoven with an illustrated tale weaving in and out of the paintings.
 

HENRI ACHILLE ZO  (1873-1933)

 

Zo took up painting at an early age, having trained with his father, who was both an accomplished painter and the DIrector of Ecole des Beaux Arts de Bordeau.  Zo became intrigued by physical worlds and strove to express them: horse races, bullfighting and circus.  Not only a successful French painter, he was an illustrator of Basque ancestry.  He and his father were considered the Founders of the "Bayonne School" style, that featured Spain and bullfighting.  Zo's work was included in the Art Competitions at the 1928 and 1932 Summer Olympics, and he won many prestigious government awards.  

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