Wayne Thiebaud at Laguna Art Museum

Wayne Thiebaud, Clown and Makeup, Clowns, Laguna Art Museum; Photo credit Nancy Kay Turner

Wayne Thiebaud at Laguna Art Museum

A clown is like aspirin, only he works twice as fast.

Groucho Marx

To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it

Charlie Chaplin

Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach
through October 24

Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Wayne Thiebaud’s exhibition at The Laguna Art Museum, simply entitled “Clowns,” is a delightful surprise, revealing the centenarian painter to be at the top of his form as he tackles, with grace and compassion, the role of the clown in society and art. These recent paintings, drawings and etchings, mostly painted in 2019 and 2020 when Thiebaud was 99 and 100, are instructive as they demonstrate
Thiebaud’s disciplined art practice, his still juicy paint handling and brave examination of an almost taboo subject matter.

Clowns, clad in multi-colored outfits, hidden behind frizzy fright wigs, bulbous red noses and white greasepaint, are mute actors whose main function is to entertain, usually at a circus or to cause a distraction – as rodeo clowns do. Historically, the first clown-like characters appeared in ancient Greece and painted their faces white to be visible. However, the modern circus was developed in London, when Philip Astley in 1768 added clowns at his sporting events as a way to fill time between events and delight the spectators.

In contemporary films, clowns have morphed into evil or scarily dark characters. There is even a disorder “coulrophobia” which is fear of clowns (no doubt influenced by Superman’s archenemy the terrifying Joker character!)

Thiebaud himself, as a young man in the 1930’s, worked at a circus. His firsthand knowledge of the behind the scenes action and the humanity of the clowns is readily evident in these works (that also give the viewer an insight into his artistic process). Thiebaud makes preliminary sketches of an idea, moving from linear to volumetric and sometimes into color. While the figures become fleshed out, the actual compositional structure remains intact – almost like serial imagery. His early training as a cartoonist and an animator developed his ability to capture movement and narrative with a few well-chosen strokes.

“Clown Group,” an undated spontaneous-looking work done with ballpoint pen on paper, 9 x 5 15/16 inches, is a loose sketch for a larger piece. In it, two clowns are peeking out from behind a motionless frontal facing clown (a boss clown) whose eyes are x’ed out (in cartoons this means out cold or dead). The larger 2019 version is mixed media and monochromatic on paper, 30 x 22 ¼ inches. Devoid of color, this clown grouping has an almost film noir character, as if Fellini had written and filmed the existential script. The main clown, hands crammed into his pockets, face expressionless, is almost preternaturally still as if awaiting Godot, while the two other clowns behind him are stacked, limbs akimbo looking like a modern Robert Indiana sculpture. The mood here is both quizzical and unsettling.

“Clown with Oversized Mask,” 2019, charcoal and chalk on paper, 30 x 22 ¼ inches, captures another quiet moment while a clown sits, primly looking side eyed at a disembodied but strangely animated head/mask staring cockily back at him. This worrying clown seems to dread putting on this too heavy or too claustrophobic mask and being enveloped in its dark interior space. The waiting seems palpable and fraught with tension. Although Thiebaud’s use of color is often a highlight of his extensive body of work, these black and white drawings, paintings and etchings are unexpectedly memorable and moving, often showing traces of decision -making as figures are erased or barely visible.

What makes this show so compelling is the quicksilver mix of levity and pathos, whipping the viewer from glee to consternation and back again. In “Untitled,” 2019 oil on linen painting, 18 x 14 inches, a lone clown is portrayed (naked seen from the side) dwarfed by the enormous brightly lit stage and caught in the intimate act of dressing- clearly the manifestation of a nightmarish performance anxiety scenario that is dreadful.

Then, just like that we have “Suspended clown cars,” 2019 oil on linen, 24 x 30 inches, featuring two bald headed, umbrella holding clowns, each running in a car costume at high speeds at each other. The textured violet background is applied in a gestural way that looks like confetti capturing the frenetic physical energy one comes to expect from circus clowns.

“Clown and Make Up,” 2016, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 30 1/8 inches, reminds one of Thiebaud’s early “Women In Tub” from the nineteen sixties – with almost the exact pastel palette and similar horizontal paint application in careful parallel lines, with the thick juicy three-dimensional quality of the oil paint piling up at the edges. Here the clown sits, looking at a pile of greasepaint that looks like cake frosting, possibly a sly homage to his own very popular early pie and cake paintings. The pale blue shadow, aglow with a yellow aura, is as much a character here as the performer himself.

While Thiebaud also paints clowns engaged in typical and atypical activities such as juggling, having their hair on fire or pontificating on stage (it was after the 2016 election), the small mystical “Clown spirit,” 2019, oil on board, 11x 14 inches, is altogether unusual. A clown lies inert on the stage, while what seems like his soul (a hint of wings and a whiff of smoke) is leaving his body forever- a theme that quietly runs through this exhibit like a melancholy river.

As Shakespeare said ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances….” And at 101 years of age, Thiebaud is aware that he is closer to the exit than most – which makes “Self-Portrait of the Clown at 100,” 2020, even more poignant. In a three quarter view, wearing a blue stocking cap on his baldhead, clad in a simple blue jacket with a bright red nose, this is a contemplative and poetic image of an artist who has had a fabulous career as a cartoonist, an animator, an acclaimed painter and a beloved teacher. We should all be so lucky. The show is a real treat showcasing a plucky modern master at the top of his game and should not be missed.

Laguna Art Museum
307 Cliff Drive at North Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, 92651

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