Clown Paintings

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Edited by Diane Keaton
powerHouse Books ($29.95)

by Andrea Balenfield

Anybody who's ever looked over their shoulder at that eerie clown painting in their local dive-bar or past-its-prime restaurant will appreciate this book, as actor/director/writer Diane Keaton has here assembled a bevy of the best this odd genre has to offer. Many of the paintings come from her personal collection or that of art dealer Robert Berman; both Keaton and Berman lurk at flea markets and swap meets, looking for fine art in what Keaton calls "the ugliest genre of them all" among the detritus.

As Clown Paintings amply demonstrates, their search has not been in vain. While none of these works shows the hand of the master, they are startlingly deep in their naïve brushstrokes and restricted subject matter. And rather than conveying a sense of repetition or easy tropism, the more than five-dozen pieces here are intriguingly different. Within the narrow parameters of the genre, these clown paintings convey a real breadth of emotion; as Berman puts it in his afterword, "the passion, absurdity, and the angst in clown paintings transcended all stereotypes that are traditionally associated with works of this nature," while Keaton notes that "these rank amateurs' dogged attempts to put a stamp of personal expression on the map link us to them." That link is indeed indelibly felt throughout these pages.

Keaton further gets at the heart of how we think about clowns by including statements on them by her fellow experts on things comedic: everyone from Woody Allen to Robin Williams weighs in on the subject in short reflections. Unlike the paintings, these pieces reveal an uncomfortable sameness, as most of the comedians confess they simply don't like clowns. Candice Bergen bemoans, "Why don't I get these guys?" Dick Van Dyke confesses, "I never laughed at a clown in my whole life." John Waters reminds us that John Wayne Gacy dressed as one when he wasn't out killing. But some writers give clowns their due: Jay Leno admits, "Their ability to get twenty-eight people into one tiny car is a good lesson for all of us."

This is a fine addition to Diane Keaton's growing shelf of image-driven books, which includes Local News (crime photos) and Still Life (Hollywood tableaux).

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003