At the threshold of commerce and art, there once existed a world where illusion, deception and transformation inhabited the fantasy realm of carnivals and circus sideshows. Noblemen would stand beside paupers to witness armless freaks and nefarious gamblers conjuring tricks that stirred the imagination.
Although such unsavory entertainments may linger in fringe cultures today, the world of "Carnivale" had been relegated to an HBO series (which only lasted two seasons) and had largely disappeared -- until now.
Performer, scholar and sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay reintroduced Los Angeles to the artifacts of this extinct culture with "Extraordinary Exhibitions," which recently closed a four-month run at the Hammer Museum.
Featuring more than 80 broadsides from his collection of eccentric playbills, the single-sheet advertisements dating back to the 17th century are printed with exaggerated statements ("Beheading A Lady! The Greatest Sensational Achievement of the Age!") and display unusual drawings touting hermaphrodites, a canon-ball juggler, an armless dulcimer player, enchanted monkeys and contortionists. The exhibition demonstrated Jay's interest in fantastical amusements, novel characters and the art of deception, which he recently discussed with Pulitzer Prize-winning comics artist Art Spiegelman at "Hammer Conversations."
"Collecting is the only form of sanctified greed," said Jay, commenting on the challenge of justifying sole ownership of a celebrated collection.
He tempers any guilt he feels by sharing his collection through museum exhibitions, book writing or public engagements, and he delights in any opportunity to perform Carney, the inventive jargon designed to both entice and confuse show-goers with its rapid iterations and irregular speech patterns.
When Spiegelman, whose own underground comic art derives inspiration from the content and style of the broadsides, prodded, "You've wasted your whole life on this Ricky."
Jay replied, "Yeah, I could've drawn comics."
Still, he proudly proclaims himself an avatar of fringe, "I'm fascinated by high-end low." And he cited some riveting examples: Mary Toth, a woman who gave birth to rabbits and a king who certified that the birth was real ("I'm not sure which King George it was; let's hope it was the one who went mad"); 29-inch-tall German magician Matthias Buchinger, who was armless and legless, played six instruments, married four times and fathered 14 children; "geeks" who bit the heads off chickens and drank their blood; a singing mouse (which Spiegelman revealed was the character inspiration for "Maus"); and a Talmudic scholar who pressed a pin through a page of Talmud and could tell you exactly what word the pin pierced on subsequent pages. There was also a rabbi who earned a living as a mentalist.
Although their passions are as divergent as their personalities, Jay and Spiegelman met in their appreciation of underground arts. Both gushed over the graphics, typeface and calligraphic style of the broadsides. They approached crude subjects with scholarly inquiry, addressing the content of a frame-by-frame projection.
The broadsides, designed to advertise a transient event, have become coveted artifacts and have risen to the level of art. Jay's collection has been widely received across the nation, suggesting a renewed interest in a culture long considered befitting only the lowest class of human life.
And that's the funny thing about art -- one person's vulgar is another's Picasso.
JCafeLA: Much Ado About Dylan
A quiet Sunday in Beverly Hills had Bob Dylan impersonators in black leather jackets chain-smoking at the mic, mumbling incoherently in their efforts to capture the legendary artist's droll personality.
The Thanksgiving holiday may have slimmed attendance, but 220 JCafeLA loyals snagged a sneak peak at behind-the-scenes footage of the Weinstein Company's new film "I'm Not There," where the prophetic musician is portrayed by multiple actors, including Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, to name a few. Dylan incarnations on screen and in the flesh flashed through the crowd gathered at the smoky bar Aqualounge in Beverly Hills.
With the atmosphere a bit contrived, it was no wonder the crowd split up, choosing either to nurse icy drinks as couch potatoes or attend to the bizarre entertainments on stage. Emcees and actors Richard Rubin and Shayna Rose enacted a parody sketch of a Jewish couple on a date, and contest winner Ethan Samuels donned a rainbow-afro, sang a cappella and blended Bob Dylan and Borat-speak to take home the big prize: $100, movie tickets and a DVD player.
JCafeLA, a networking platform for young Jewish professionals, deserves credit for the effort.
An audience member re-enacts an incident at the 1998 Grammys when an overzealous fan jumped on stage with Bob Dylan, his chest scrawled with the phrase "Soy Bomb" at JCafeLA Nov. 18.