The Tears of a Clown – Life’s a Tightrope at Studio 659

Creative types have been fascinated by clowns, circuses, and circus freaks for eons – from film directors to musicians to amateur artists. Examples are the rather commercial clown paintings of Red Skelton, the notorious groundbreaking film Freaks, directed by Todd Browning in 1932, and most recently – Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon. Widely considered a masterpiece, the most touching clown-related film – and my personal favorite – Fellini’s La Strada.

Personally, I find clowns rather creepy which is why they are so fascinating. It seems as though amateur painters make up the vast majority of the clown painting genre. I have bought kitschy clown paintings at thrift stores for my own collection. So it is refreshing that Life’s a Tightrope at Studio 659 takes on this theme with a creative, ambitious zeal, presenting the work of fine artists rather than amateurs. Many of the artists appear to feel the same way I do about clowns – there is a decidedly dark underbelly lurking beneath the surface. 

I went to Studio 659 last Thursday to pick up a piece I had in the Vixens: Pin-Up exhibit. While there I admired the work in Life’s a Tightrope and decided to write a blog about it. Among my favorite pieces are those of Richard Capas, Sophia Rapata, Laura Junge, and Elissa Brown – all pictured herein.

I like the Chicago-Imagist influence and outsider art vibe of Richard Capas’ pieces. They are intricate, colorful, and created in a somewhat naive style that complements the quirky world of clowns and the circus. They are slightly reminiscent of the work of Red Grooms and children’s book illustrations. Just for Fun Clowns 100+ is a very cool, creative spin on the Where’s Waldo series – I could look at this piece all day and find something new to admire.

Sophia Rapata has three very impressive pieces in this exhibit. Her large mixed media sculpture – Light of a Clown is haunting and unearths the dark side of the clown alluded to earlier – a sad, depressed, and sometimes troubled individual disguised under heavy make-up. This piece is powerful and theatrical – the masked, skeletal face reminds me of the German Expressionist art of James Ensor. Well-crafted, the nightmarish imagery makes a strong statement, visually and conceptually.


Rapata’s Sylvie and Sue, a watercolor on paper is deceptively illustrative in style. There is a wicked surprise – a partial twin growing out of the torso of a pre-pubescent girl with an adult face. Inspiration from this piece may come from real circus freaks – I remember several old photographs depicting such people. The colors and style contrast with the disturbing elements in this piece – the  freaky doll in her bed seems to mirror her own affliction, while the bare tree branches speak to her isolation and loneliness as a freak of nature. The strawberries look like human hearts – broken hearts.

Laura Junge has three interesting, highly detailed giclée on canvas works which are paradoxical in nature. While there are playful elements and pretty colors, there is an evil presence at work here. These are circus people gone bad, wreaking havoc on their unsuspecting audience. The technique is bravura and this imagery stays with you long after leaving the gallery.

The mixed media collages of Elissa Brown are a bit more subtle and certainly not frightening. She is masterful at creating collages that seamlessly blend a variety of materials and elements into elegant compositions. The gold and brown cloth flows out of the picture plane – a visually intriguing abstraction of the lion’s body. The female lion tamer looks a little like a younger, cuter, feminine version of the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz – perhaps not so surefooted about her role.

I highly recommend going to see this clever, fun exhibit. Studio 659 may be a bit off-the-beaten path for Chicagoans, but it is well worth the trip. This hidden gem of an art gallery is located in the charming historic downtown district of Whiting, Indiana. It’s a just short drive from downtown Chicago and you will be pleasantly surprised. The gallery is open on Thursday/Friday, Noon-7 pm and on Saturday, 10 am-2 pm.

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