send in the clowns
The show, titled “Pogo: The Savage Mirror,” collects examples of prison art from notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
“It’s important to understand the Portrait Gallery’s mission,” explained gallery director Martin Sullivan. “In choosing to show any body of work, our museum must always ask about the cultural import of the figure being described—our shows are about context and representation first and foremost. And I don’t think you can argue that serial killers have not played an outsized role in American popular culture, and in our collective imagination.”
Gacy, executed in 1994, is known primarily for murdering 33 young teenage boys and burying most of them in the crawlspace of his Norwood Park, Illinois house. But Gacy also took breaks from the bloodbath to follow his other favorite pastime: clowning for the Moose club's Jolly Jokers group, designing his own costume and distinctive makeup for his merry alter ego, Pogo.
The 43 pieces in the show, all created while Gacy sat on death row, and all depicting smiling clowns framed by rainbows and balloons, are, arguably, self-portraits of a psychopath.
“The show brings up many interesting art-historical questions,” Sullivan said. “What is the relationship of art produced by those who have lost their freedom to the broader culture? Can we make aesthetic sense of an oeuvre tainted by tragedy? Why are clowns so creepy?”
Sullivan dismisses the idea that Gacy’s murders make mounting such an exhibition unthinkable. “Art floats free of the artist’s biography, misdeeds, and even his intentions,” he mused. “In fact, there’s a long history of creative types indulging in questionable behavior and still being honored for their work. Phillip Johnson was a National Socialist. Carl Andre pushed his wife out a window. John Currin might be a libertarian.”
“Most artists have skeletons in their closets—it just turns out that in Gacy’s case, the skeletons were actually skeletons. And they were buried under his house.”
Oddly, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough seems unconcerned about possible scandal or outcry. “Look, there’s nothing offensive in these pictures—no crosses, no leathermen, no pictures of Ellen DeGeneres. I checked.”
“The only thing museum goers might object to is the context, the history. And we have a strategy for dealing with that: All wall text will be set in teeny tiny typefaces.”
When pressed about the wisdom of showing art by a mass murderer so soon after the "Hide/Seek" censorship debacle last winter (“I prefer to call it a debacle-tunity,” he insists), Clough is quick to frame the show in a broader art world context.
“People tell me that this show has a body count. Excuse me, but have you checked to see who’s underwriting major art museum exhibitions these days? Big insurance companies; big tobacco; defense contractors. Body count? Gacy didn’t even begin to put up those kinds of numbers.”
Editor’s note: Today is April 1.