Blackbird’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ looks at the early 20th century American circus


The early-20th-century American circus was as fantastic and awesome as it was heartbreaking, ugly and brutal. For The Greatest Show on Earth, opening this week at Blackbird Studios, gallery owner Gina Quaranto asked artists to explore its dark and often romanticized history, resulting in a colorful group show depicting the excitement and sadness of the early 1900s traveling circus.

With works by more than 20 artists working in diverse media and with varied skill levels, the exhibit carries the same blend of frivolity and depth of other themed Blackbird group shows (from atomic testing to fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm).

“America was going through this trying time, and the one beacon of light was the circus coming to town,” Quaranto says. “It brought joy to people, and information. But it was a really dark place.”

In Greatest, artists capture the carnies, freaks, jugglers, clowns, animals and aerial artists that rolled into towns across the country, highlighting the artistry of solo acts under the spotlight while showcasing the parades and circus posters.

Among the more interesting works, mostly representational painting, collage and sculpture, are black-and-white photographs by Las Vegas resident Bill Payne, who traveled as a musician and roustabout with circuses and captured the community through his lens. Dustin Wax’s work on paper features a pen and ink drawing of a tiny tent for a flea circus. Peter Mengert’s painting of the Crow Sisters and Lisa Dietrich’s fortune teller and bearded lady portraits present the spirit of the era.

The Greatest Show on Earth Through June 22; opening reception June 7, 6–11 p.m. Blackbird Studios, 782-0319

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