Baby Irene (1998)
acrylic on canvas
Johnny Meah is one of the last living sideshow banner artists. His work is always self-titled, a form of assertive and overblown advertising illustration on canvas tarps that in recent years has departed from circus and carnival midways to be subsumed into the shifting catchall grouping known as "outsider art."
His sideshow banners were once a perfectly straightforward example of graphic prevarication, designed to inflame the imaginations of otherwise sensible people and lure them into parting with their money. The sideshow's stock in trade was the inherent sense of fascination/repulsion gullible viewers harboured toward "the other:" freaks, monsters and the arcanely adept.
Meah's job was not to portray reality - which too often would have been a rank disappointment - but to pump up through colour-caricature, socko lettering and (frequently) sexual innuendo an invitation to a steamy, tent-shrouded suspension of disbelief.
Meah continues his work for galleries and collectors from recall of former times, neither relaxing his ostentatious thrust or attempting a more sophisticated style. His hucksterish and fabulist proclamations, once aimed at the credulous rube, are now seen as charmingly innocent: manifestations of a limner's art which dates back to 18th-century Europe, when travelling balladeers and players with animal menageries utilized flying pictures to illustrate the attractions of their shows to illiterate audiences.
If we are old enough to remember circuses and carnivals and today find these banners outrageously campy and garish, our reaction may have to do with admitting our own childhood naïvté - and, perhaps ruefully, how hip and jaded we've ultimately become.
© Ted Lindberg