Clowntime is here

A juxtaposition of dark and whimsical at new Snidle exhibit

Lynn Criswell’s “Clown Wall.”

Lynn Criswell’s “Clown Wall.”

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Clowns & Portraits, by Lynn Criswell, shows through June 30 Hours: Wed.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
James Snidle Fine Arts
254 E. Fourth St.

The power of the classic clown-car gag comes from the surprise at so much being contained in such small quarters, and this is something that can also be said of the living-room-size exhibit space at James Snidle Fine Arts Gallery.

It’s basically the front room of a Victorianesque house with a picture window facing the street and French doors providing ingress from an art-filled foyer. Currently, the intimate space is overflowing with an impressive collection from multimedia artist Lynn Criswell—works explode across the walls, dangle from the ceiling and stand firmly in the middle of the floor.

And there are also clowns.

Declaring a whimsical, surreal and enigmatic power that a genuine artist can wring from such mundane sources as old grade-school photos, vintage plastic bird cages and images from old Saturday morning cartoons and random Americana, Criswell’s Clowns & Portraits exhibit superimposes and juxtaposes in ways that skillfully evoke a compendium of contradictory emotional and intellectual reactions.

Opposite the foyer are those clowns, on the “Clown Wall.” Consisting of an array of layered ink-jet-printed images on Turkish felt, the clowns are placed in seemingly random, multi-angled discontinuity across the wall, evoking both the goofiness and scariness of clowns and welcoming you in to a circus of fascinatingly odd imagery.

In front of the picture window, “Jack Robin,” the 3-D, cast-aluminum ringmaster of the exhibit, stands on one end of a narrow table laughing and facing a rustic birdhouse perched on a tree stump. He looks a lot like fiendishly cackling trickster Woody Woodpecker, but balancing his cartoon persona is a silhouette of a very realistic woodpecker cut from sheet lead and applied to the base of the sculpture.

The “Portraits” of the exhibition are hung in simple, unglazed wooden frames. To create them, Criswell took photos from a set of 1965 fifth-grade school photos, enlarged them and printed them on Turkish felt, trimmed out the silhouettes and then hand-stitched and superimposed assorted images over or onto the faces of the children. The results are both beautiful pieces of craftwork and imagination, and somewhat disconcerting reinterpretations of what were originally rather innocuous images. “The Boy With Fried Egg Eyes” stares blankly, the left quadrant of his torso spotted with craters, his irises formed from circles of the artist’s hair surrounded by crudely sketched yellow crayon to finish the fried egg look.

Providing subtext to the clowns and portraits is the unstated but primary value of birds in Criswell’s work. Adding a surreal 3-D quality to the show are four Lucite 1950s birdcages—much like those featured in her “As the Crow Flies” installation in the Sacramento International Airport. Suspended on translucent thread from the gallery ceiling, the unoccupied clear plastic cages comment on the ways in which we imprison that which is beautiful, harmless and vulnerable, much like her alterations of the children’s photos force us to speculate on what actually became of those seemingly blameless, innocent children who sat in front of a camera 50 years ago.

In other words, it’s a great show.