Museum exhibit brings Coney Island to San Diego!

Grinning face of Tillie, symbol of Coney Island, on the back of a tour bus heading toward the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
Grinning face of Tillie, symbol of Coney Island, on the back of a tour bus heading toward the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

An extraordinary exhibit recently opened at the San Diego Museum of Art. It’s called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008. Last Saturday, I enjoyed a very special tour, courtesy of my docent friend Catherine!

The exhibit features a collection of more than a hundred objects that depict 150 years of Coney Island’s amusement parks, boardwalk, beach and people. It includes paintings, photographs, videos, carnival posters, sideshow banners, carved wooden carousel horses, and a wide range of colorful, unique artifacts.

From its early days as a peaceful beach getaway for wealthy New Yorkers, to the rise and fall of amusement parks, years of decay, political wrangling, then modern renewal, Coney Island has been interpreted by artists through the years in a variety of surprising ways. Some artists portray an innocent playland for common people. Others, something more complex, and less innocent.

Most of the exhibit’s artwork centers on Coney Island’s legendary amusement parks. Many images resemble exuberant scenes from a carnival or circus. They’re full of energy, laughter, humanity, wonder–but often base, superficial, disturbing, despairing. Many painting are dark, almost gaudy with a crowded press of people seeking pleasure. A symbol adopted by Coney Island–the unnatural, exaggerated grin of Tillie–seems to be a taunting reminder that the purchased thrills are artificial. The grin is strangely maniacal and mindless, one part Joker, one part Cheshire Cat.

Fantastic imagery abounds in the exhibit, which is sure to delight many kids. They’ll see huge cyclops heads, videos of romping midgets, a banner promising a sideshow freak with inhuman tentacles. The adults will see images of lust, insatiability, scattered litter, dripping blood.

I suppose we humans like to be both excited and terrified.

One Impressionist painting by the important American artist William Merritt Chase shows a landscape of sunlight and natural, unspoiled beauty; the egg tempera painted canvases of Reginald Marsh are dark, crammed with unabated appetite, bold kinetic energy and human expression; photographs by Arthur Fellig (Weegee) show people crowded onto the beach like fleshy, happy sardines.

Personally, as I took my amazing tour, I saw life’s wonderful jumble and a sample of our world’s endless variety. All the emotions, the complexity–but mostly I recognized the sunlit memories of ordinary good-natured neighbors heading to the beach and boardwalk, and some exciting, brief amusements, on a sunny weekend day.

This isn’t a typical art museum exhibit. It’s more like taking an instant journey to a place you already know. A Coney Island in your mind. And your vivid experiences in the San Diego Museum of Art will make the journey seem very real.

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, has come to San Diego from the Wadsworth Athenium Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. This special exhibition continues through October 13, 2015.

Here are just a few things that you’ll see…

Reginald Marsh, Wooden Horses, 1936, Tempera on board. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Reginald Marsh, Wooden Horses, 1936, Tempera on board. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Pip and Flip, Twins from Yucatan with World Circus Side Show, Coney Island, 1929, Photographic reproduction. Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.
Pip and Flip, Twins from Yucatan with World Circus Side Show, Coney Island, 1929, Photographic reproduction. Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.
Jeanie, Living Half Girl, 1940, Sideshow banner. Collection of Ken Harck.
Jeanie, Living Half Girl, 1940, Sideshow banner. Collection of Ken Harck.
Mort Künstler, Coney Island, 1953, Gouache on paper. Collection of the artist.
Mort Künstler, Coney Island, 1953, Gouache on paper. Collection of the artist.
Barnum & Bailey Circus Water Carnival poster, Coney Island.
Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, the Great Coney Island Water Carnival poster.  Thrilling and daring feats of every description!
Arnold Mesches, Anomie 1991: Winged Victory, 1991, Acrylic on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.
Arnold Mesches, Anomie 1991: Winged Victory, 1991, Acrylic on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.
Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, 1913, Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.
Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, 1913, Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.

The San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park is simply jammed with fantastic, provocative Coney Island art. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  So go see it!

Coney Island, Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Coney Island, Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, at the San Diego Museum of Art.

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Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

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