Topsy Turvy: Artists and the Amusement Utopia

60 Wall St. Gallery, New York, NY
Now trough October 23.
by Aaron Beebe (Independent Artist and Curator)
exhibit 1
A lot has been said about the changes that modernism brought to cultural producers beginning in the late 19th century, but one piece to consider adding to study of avant-gardes is the unrecognized freedom of the amusement industry for creative individuals.
In June, I curated an exhibition at the gallery at 60 Wall St. that pulls together a host of artists who work in and around Coney Island, and who have found that working in an amusement park offers extremely rewarding creative possibilities for their lives and work.
A century ago, there was a revolution in Western ideas of work and leisure that opened up new opportunities for creative entrepreneurs to make their marks on the world. New technologies of display in museums, department stores and amusement parks created a topsy-turvy world in which the skills of artists and creative thinkers were in remarkably high demand, and individuals who could think creatively were hailed as leaders instead of misfits. These new industries relied on the vision of creative individuals to make money and offered exciting new opportunities for artists and visionaries to make their marks on society, elevating popular culture and paving the way for pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein generations later.
In the 115 years since George C. Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, artists, small business owners, and creative individuals have been the leaders in a narrow field of entertainment and amusement that privileged creativity and textual prowess in architecture and design, and offered visitors a place to lose themselves in environments created by nominal outsiders. This strange, special environment continues to look like a world reflected in a funhouse mirror – where a misfit can be mayor and normal, middle-of-the road people are hailed as genius superstars.
exhibit 2
The artists in this exhibition have all, at some point in their careers, been inspired by the unexpected freedoms that the amusement industry (at its height as well as in its decline) provides for creative thinkers. They have each gravitated to this nurturing space for their own creative outlet, and made the creative arm of the amusement industry all the richer for it. Inspired by the fantastic stories of Coney Island as a home for outsiders and “freaks”, they all create work that is at times literary and performative – and that references the history of amusement.  “Topsy Turvy” celebrates the utopian concepts that bind this evolving artistic community, wherever their work takes them, as it continues to be shaped by shared interests and contemporary practices.

Each of the artists in the show have their own relationship with the freedoms and possibilities of the amusement zone.  And the work they produce sometimes struggles with those freedoms, and at other times expands and reproduces them.  Some of these individuals work exclusively in Coney Island, others only briefly.  But they have all had an effect on the industry that made these works possible.
What follows is a brief introduction to the artists in the exhibition.  There are several works by each artist in the show, all are for sale, and for details concerning public events, access, directions, and sales, please contact Caroline Taylor via the website.

Homer Croy. Coney Island. 1929
Homer Croy. Coney Island. 1929

Homer Croy
Homer Croy was one of New York City’s most prolific fiction writers of the 1920’s. His fictional account of a young man from the Midwest who invents the newest ride in Coney Island is a particularly rich description of the utopian promise of the amusement industry’s silver age, setting the tone for popular accounts of the “giant toys” that were drawing people by the millions to the new streetcar parks around the country. The tensions in Croy’s story – between the humble but “authentic” tightrope walker and the elegant but uptight upper-class girl – disappear in this fantasyland where giant toys designed by genius engineers are actually money-making enterprises. Croy’s vision of an amusement park utopia, waiting to be discovered by a young, creative entrepreneur is a perfect example of the space that the amusement industry provided for artists in the 20th century.
Marie A. Roberts. Ten in One. 2010
Marie A. Roberts. Ten in One. 2010

Marie A. Roberts

Marie Roberts is an artist whose understanding of high and low culture informs everything she does. Growing up in Coney Island, and in love with the freedoms that life among performers and hot-dog vendors provides, Roberts has made a career out of walking a line between art and commerce. Her work functions both as painting on canvas – perhaps the most staid and traditional medium in the artworld today – and as commercial advertising for some of the most radical performers alive.
Although trained as a fine artist and well-versed in European and American art history, Roberts grew up in a family of hucksters and entrepreneurs. She is considered Coney Island royalty, with a pedigree that includes a childhood home that was a way-station for renowned circus performers.  Informed by that family history, and in addition to her work painting the banner line for the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Roberts also earns a living painting portraits on commission. With commissions from individuals as well as performing groups, her work often alludes as much to 17th century portraiture as to 20th century marketing. Conceived as propaganda and meant to be seen from a distance, her outsized and flamboyant work has been hanging on the walls of historic buildings since the mid-1990’s. Like the best examples of hand-painted circus and sideshow banners historically, her work doubles as both fine art and advertising, luring visitors to see the mysteries of the show “on the inside”. While her playful style and painterly approach to figures are very different than that of more familiar mid-century artists like Snap Wyatt and Fred Johnson, her deep involvement with Coney Island has given her a chance to mold the new sideshow, creating an abstracted and gestural style that has become part of what Coney Island means today.

Steve Powers, Nothing More Sad. 2012
Steve Powers, Nothing More Sad. 2012

Steve Powers
Steve Powers career captures the contradictions and creative opportunities of art in an entrepreneurial setting. A graffiti artist who “went legit” when he opened a sign shop in an amusement park, his work is filled with emotion, rendering cynicism and heartfelt honesty in enamel on metal – a medium that is usually devoid of both. Powers has worked with the aesthetics of amusement for most of his career: his 1996 graffiti work, Greetings from ESPOLand (Where the Quality of Life is Offensive!) was a wall-sized billboard in the style of Asbury Park; and in 2004, Powers worked with Creative Time to produce the Dreamland Artists’ Club, which brought gallery and street artists to Coney Island to paint signs for local businesses. The pieces exhibited here explore the daily struggles and rewards of interpersonal relationships in the complex and exciting world of ordinary people trying to get by. These works, all produced in his sign shop in Brooklyn, show his engagement in creating emotion, both positive and negative, using the aesthetics of visual communication.
Dick D. Zigun. Burlesque Manifesto, 1982
Dick D. Zigun. Burlesque Manifesto, 1982

Dick D. Zigun
Dick Zigun is a playwright and theater director. His interest in the life of PT Barnum and his love of offbeat performance styles led him to found a nonprofit arts organization in 1980 during New York City’s explosion of underground performance and art. Diverging slightly from his peers in the downtown art scene in SoHo and the East Village, Zigun set up shop in Brooklyn, appointing himself the “permanently unelected mayor of Coney Island” and founding Sideshows by the Seashore, a theater space where performers examine disappearing American art forms and explore new ways of making art.
Zigun is an unassuming figure in person, and not a performer himself, but his work has had a profound influence on American performance, bringing sideshows and burlesque back into the national imaginary and billing Coney Island as a utopian space for new ideas and creative individuals. As his work as a commercial booster and his artistic practice have become entirely fused, Zigun’s years in Coney Island have been marked by the complete blurring of his life and art.
Aaron Beebe. Dreamland|The Pleasure of the Text. 2011
Aaron Beebe. Dreamland|The Pleasure of the Text. 2011

Aaron Beebe

Any industry that has a need to entice visitors relies on clear communication and visually direct imagery to get its audiences excited. Aaron Beebe’s art celebrates the indirect, the coincidental, and the implied. Therefore, as director of the Coney Island Museum, Beebe created a strange, hybrid institution that challenged the conventions of both the Museum and the Amusement Park. In turn, Beebe’s artistic work reflect his career in museums and archives, with their focus on text, their carefully crafted frames, and the often surprising windows and vitrines embedded into their surfaces.
Beebe’s drawings and paintings reflect his literary roots. Considering himself more a scholar than a visual artist, he creates objects that use numerous different textual conventions, evoking books, broadsheets, and hand-painted signs, and focusing on historic documents and archival material. Through his association with Coney Island, Beebe has had the freedom to explore those different conventions in one of the few places where they all have meaning and resonance – and where the expectations of conventionality are tossed aside in favor of experimentation and surprise.

Richard Eagan.  Shoot. 1979
Richard Eagan. Shoot. 1979

Richard Eagan
In the mid-1980’s Richard Eagan worked a series of booths on the midway in Coney Island. He entered the job market as a novice outside talker (or what is commonly, but mistakenly known outside the business as a “barker”), and emerged as a seasoned professional and a member of an elite community of skilled talkers. Much of Eagan’s sculptural and painting work references his childhood memories of Coney Island as filtered through later moments in and around the shooting galleries and ghost rides of a vanishing industry – it reminds us of the beauty of loss as well as of summer days of fun and frivolity.
Zoe Beloff. Design for a Freudian Amusement Park. 2013
Zoe Beloff. Design for a Freudian Amusement Park. 2013

Zoe Beloff
Zoe Beloff’s work has long been concerned with the history of psychology, amateur art, and the creative potential of ordinary people. Her 2009 project, The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circle, 1926-1972, worked with historical documents and a rich archive of material culture to create the compelling, whimsical, and surprisingly convincing story of a group of local film enthusiasts inspired by the writings of Sigmund Freud. Led by a self-trained illustrator by the name of Albert Grass, the Society thrived throughout the middle of the 20th century and represented some of the best qualities of amusement, self-interrogation, and spectacle.
Through Grass, Beloff has found a means to explore new territory in design, process, and what it means for something to be called “art”. He also provides her with an opportunity to research and flesh out other figures from history, both fictional and real. As she writes in her preface to The Adventures of a Dreamer, “Albert Grass is a rare character, for we know much more about his inner life than the external facts of his biography. To write about him raises the question: can we piece together a life from a document of dreams?” In Coney Island, the line between fact and fiction is conscientiously blurred; the distinction between dream and reality is designed to be traversed, and Beloff has made effective use of that freedom by creating a character whose deep commitment to the interior world allows her to create charming and complex historical documents in her art.
Zoe Beloff’s relationship with the radical freedom of life in the amusement park has given her a means to create new and innovative work that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible. During her year as an artist-in-residence at the Coney Island Museum, she explored concepts that other institutions might have had difficulty backing. The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circle, 1926-1972 presented a challenging but exciting mix of historic research, psychic mediumship, forgery, and artistic license, resulting in a significant body of work that is now being shown in museums around the world.
Philomena Marano. Ma Est Ide. 2011
Philomena Marano. Ma Est Ide. 2011

Philomena Marano
Philomena Marano works largely in cut paper, a time-consuming and exacting process that gives her work a crisp and precise feel. The subject matter of her works varies dramatically, although she tends to focus on the hidden surprises found in everyday scenes. When looking for inspiration for her Coney Island-based work, Marano seeks out surprising juxtapositions of words and symbols, layers of meaning, and textual clues in order to build a complex and multi-layered whole.
Marano’s work is often concerned with hidden spaces and unfinished thoughts. She creates kinetic motion in her pieces through symbols, gazes, arrows, and tracks, pulling the audience into the heart of the mystery using a slight-of-hand that can only be called magical.
Bambi the Mermaid. 2-Headed Baby. 1996
Bambi the Mermaid. 2-Headed Baby. 1996

Bambi the Mermaid
Bambi the Mermaid is a performance artist whose work eagerly and pushes the boundary between titillation and silliness. Her feminist sensibility, distaste for overly-intellectual commentary, and irreverent sense of humor have made Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore an important center for the New Burlesque movement and a home for experimental performance.
Bambi the Mermaid’s photographic work often speaks to her love of camp and her deep concern for New York’s many at-risk subcultures.  With performative elements taken from her time working with the drag community, differently-abled performers and friends, and the ever-expanding world of the New Burlesque Movement, her work is often humorous, sometimes uncomfortable, and always irreverent.  Much of her images reference a long tradition of spectacle in the amusement park, exposing her own longing for difference – a wish to belong to a community that is unique and unusual, but which one has to be “born-different” to enter.
The Coney Island Hysterical Society. 25 Shoot. 2008
The Coney Island Hysterical Society. 25 Shoot. 2008

The Coney Island Hysterical Society
Richard Eagan’s early work as a carpenter and Philomena Marano’s training with Pop Artist Robert Indiana find a common goal in their collaborative work as the Coney Island Hysterical Society. Like many artists who are inspired by Coney Island, the Hysterical Society is motivated in part by nostalgia for a bygone era. But their experiences working in the amusement area in all seasons, and their lifelong relationship with the workers and residents of the amusement park give their work a deeper connection with Coney Island’s surprising resilience and unexpected beauty.
For Eagan and Marano, as for many artists, old amusement parks have represented both cherished memories and spaces for adult exploration and play. The decline of the amusement industry in the 1970’s and 80’s in New York made room for these young artists to explore the gaps and holes left by vanishing businesses, and even as the remaining attractions were bound up in a ever more strangely tight-knit and traditional communities of families and characters, there was plenty of space for innovation and creative license. As the Coney Island Hysterical Society they create three-dimensional objects that are equal parts nostalgia, craftsmanship, and stylistic reimagination. Testaments to the beauty of decay, they revel in the physicality of nostalgic spaces and celebrate a style of small business that is fast disappearing in New York.
William F. Mangels Drawing for a Shooting Gallery. ca. 1918-19.
William F. Mangels Drawing for a Shooting Gallery. ca. 1918-19.

William F. Mangels
William Mangels was the world’s foremost amusement park ride designer during the first half of the 20th Century. An amateur artist in his own right, Mangels designed and manufactured most of the mechanical attractions that are central to amusement parks today.
Mangels’ studio began its worldwide rise to prominence with the painstakingly artisanal work of carousel design and manufacture, creating what became known as the “Coney Island” style of carousel decoration, and while he eventually became known for his pioneering design on rides such as “the Whip” and his championing of the history of the amusement industry with his Museum of American Recreation, his studio’s early work included a series of ubiquitous and internationally distributed metal shooting galleries that set the standard for carnival attractions worldwide.
William Mangels was in many ways the living prototype for Homer Croy’s “Mr. Zimmerman” and Zoe Beloff’s “Albert Grass”. Later in his life, as the founder of the Museum of American Recreation, Mangels’ wrote the definitive history of the global amusement industry. But as a younger man and an incredibly successful entrepreneur, he also invented much of that history. His manufacturing company made prototypes of his inventions and sold them to parks around the world, making Coney Island one of the globe’s most important ride manufacturing centers.

Leave a Reply