Part 1: Carnival art on the amusement rides
I made my annual pilgrimage to the Washington State Fair, the largest annual event in Washington, where I gorged myself silly (through the eyes) on all of the visuality to be had (though orally, all I had was a pack of trail mix, a bottle of water and a cup of coffee).
I beheld many a wonder — including a state record 63-pound cabbage grown by Cindy Tobeck of Littlerock, Wash. I saw giant pumpkins looking like sad bladders sagging under their own weight. I cruised by the cut flower specimens and the neatly laid out grange exhibits (congratulations Lewis County Pomona).
I never miss an opportunity to visit the Hobby Hall to look at the display of things that various collectors have to share. This year I was especially impressed by James Deal’s unrestored and original “sting ray” bikes, by Mel Knutson’s “Lead Top Advertising Oil Cans,” Craig Robinson’s “Antique Fire Sprinklers” and 9-year-old Tyler Sterling’s collection of “Stress Relievers.”
I was mainly there, however, to focus on the visual arts at the fair. Next week, by way of an art review, I will direct attention, in an overt way, to the fair as an art viewing experience.
This week, however, I would like to start my art-viewing tour of the fair with a look at the art that decorates the rides. I always find this to be some of the most fascinating, amusing and alluring stuff that the fair has to offer. I began my trip to the fair with a stroll through the Midway where I took in all of the garish, strange, sensational and sometimes gawky art — hand-painted or airbrushed — on the rides. Amusements like funhouses, with their big facades, and the swing rides, that have a large backdrop behind the swing, afford big swaths of real estate for artists to cover with imagery that is evocative of the thrill of fear or the lure of the freaky. They are creepy, titillating and teasing as they seek to whet the appetite and draw visitors in to experience the adventures that wait within.
A dark ride called “Ghost Pirates,” for example, is covered in airbrushed art by an unknown artist (I could not find a signature). In the upper left corner, there is a painting of a ship with its sails furled. Beneath is a depiction of the same ship, now wrecked. The masts are broken and the ship’s contents are gushing out of a hole in its side, like blood and viscera spilling from a grievous wound. In the foreground, there are sword-wielding skeletons looking on from a rocky shore.
The right side of the façade is done with a peculiar scene in which pirates are fighting for control of a ship. It looks like pirates fighting pirates, since none of the four figures look like the standard 18th or 19th-century sailor. The main figure, who is swinging in on a rope, is dressed in a short loin wrap and is bare-chested with long, black hair. He looks like a slightly slimmed down version of Conan the Barbarian, except that he has an eyepatch. He has his broadsword clenched between his teeth, which must be something of a feat. This “eyepatch barbarian” is kicking another bare-chested, loincloth-wearing man over the railing. (Shouldn’t the loin-cloth wearers all be on the same side?) The falling man’s loincloth is leopard-spotted. A red smudge around the mouth indicates that he is bleeding. His face and his abdominal muscles are all very awkwardly rendered, which gives the painting an amateurish charm.
Across from “Ghost Pirates” is a swing ride called “Sinbad’s” that has the Arabian sailor/adventurer depicted on the backdrop. To the left is Sinbad himself, wearing a turban and earring and using his scimitar to block a fireball that is being cast by a wizard in black. On the right is a depiction of a giant monster with two horns growing on the back of his head. He wields a spiked club and has a human victim — clutching a sword — tucked under his arm. A wooden cage with more people (the monster’s food supply?) is on the ground. In the background is the monster’s cave where a treasure chest resides. Above the carriage that fairgoers ride in, there is an airbrushed depiction of an Aladdin’s lamp that mixes together imagery from two different strands of Middle Eastern fable: that of Sinbad with that of Aladdin.
Another funhouse ride called “Rat Race” features airbrushed art (again, I could not locate an artist’s signature) that shows mostly cartoon rats, mice and cats. The artwork seems mostly derived from the well-known Tom and Jerry characters from Hanna-Barbara cartoons. In the lower right corner, however, there is a cat in a garbage can that looks to be inspired more by the Hanna-Barbara character Top Cat. Enigmatically, the left side of the façade is done with a scene of a big, red frog that reclines in almost supine splendor as a big orange sun hangs behind him. Some sort of wobbly, blue splodge of water is surging up from the side as a kind of surreal variant of Hiroshige’s “Wave” in the famous woodcut print.
I love studying the imagery and the sometimes-peculiar details of the work of often anonymous artists that do this kind of work. A swing called “Sea Dragon” features a scene of a majestic Viking longboat and a big sea monster that looks part dinosaur, with a row of big plates running down its back. A spin-ride called “Star Ship 2000” has fascinating scenes airbrushed in its base panels. There is a big, red monster from a strange world coming after a poor American astronaut. In another panel, the astronaut has been captured. His suit is torn and he hangs limp in the monster’s grip. Other panels feature alien knights riding reptilian beasts as they confront lizard-like monsters. A pig-warrior with tusks and plates of armor is strangely clad in a red riding hood as he clutches his battle axe. He rides astride another lizard-beast.
An artist called Dino Zoot did the amazing art on the outside of the “Haunted Mansion.” This looks brush painted rather than airbrushed. On the left is a scene of a decomposing figure coming up out of the ground and reaching up with a clawed hand. Looking on from an open doorway is a figure cloaked in black; no doubt the necromancer who has raised the poor creature from the dead. The right side of the panel is dominated by the figure of a buxom woman in a Victorian dress who wears an expression of terror as ghouls come up from among the topsy-turvy tombstones of the foreground.
The backdrop of a spin-ride called “Enterprise” is done with a beautiful scene of one of the hunters from the “Predator” movies confronting two of the creatures from the “Alien” movies. The latter are rendered in a somewhat stylized manner. The scene is dramatic, with the hunter poised on the edge of a precipice as his two foes come in for the showdown. The background is a sumptuous gradient of yellow, orange and purple. The spectacular art is incongruous with either the title or the style of the ride. I suppose that one is to imagine that one is on a risky and desperate space ship adventure.
These are but a few examples of the large and small scale art characteristic of amusement rides and carnival parks. I find myself always attracted to this colorful, garish and often cheesy art. You might want to appreciate it while you still can. See it now while it still lives and breathes and does what it is intended to do: pique people’s interest and tickle their fancy so that they spend money on tickets to ride this or that ride.
There are other rides in which a different decorative trend is already evident: that which uses digital technology to construct a more design-oriented, clean and “professional” form of ornamentation. A swing ride called “Rock Star,” for example, is done in a glitzy, photography-based style showing rock stars and starbursts. Some of the kids’ rides are done up in what looks like video-game graphics. The roller coaster called “Wild Cat” has design elements that combines silhouettes of big cats, bamboo and paw prints in a pattern almost like gift wrapping paper. It draws the eye and echoes the overall theme of the ride while doing so with a contemporary style that does not distract one with any sort of amateur awkwardness.
It is difficult to see a future in which hand-painted and airbrushed art does not have a place in the state fair, the amusement park and the carnival. As established institutions seek to shed the cheesy factor and appear legitimate and polished, however, such work is likely to be increasingly sidelined and then simply fade from existence. As the Washington State Fair gets further and further from its roots as “The Puyallup Fair,” I expect that there will come an increasing urge to make every aspect seem prim, antiseptic, professional and machine made. Then you will only be able to see interesting, silly, awkward and handmade decoration in coffee table books or as part of quaint, self-consciously retro experiences staged as a feeble counterweight to the neat, new style.
Pick up next week’s issue of Tacoma Weekly for a look at the visual art exhibits at the Washington State Fair. The fair runs through Sept. 24, but is closed on Tuesdays. For further information, visit thefair.com.