Freaks and carnies have long inhabited artist Pamela Joseph's world.
She grew up on her grandparents' farm in New Haven, Conn., where they regularly allowed carnivals and donkey baseball games to set up shop on their acreage.
"I see the sideshow as an early form of public art," Joseph says.
That early influence permeates her installation, "Sideshow of the Absurd." The exhibit opens to the public at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center on Saturday, in conjunction with the citywide exhibit "Gods and Monsters." The project includes multiple art shows and events at six arts organizations.
It won't be a surprise to learn this is not your typical art show - there are no paintings hanging neatly on the walls. Instead, it's an experience, a feast for the senses. There are lights, sounds and video, including a mechanized sculpture of a lady sword swallower, a "Torture Museum" and adjoining "Beauty shoppe," "The Garden of the Virgins" and the ringmaster herself - Pussy Marshmallow - a woman with the head of a cat, who lofts a giant house cat named Max high above her head. There are a lot of felines sprinkled throughout the show, says Joseph, who calls herself a "terrific cat lover."
"My alter ego is Pussy Marshmallow," she says. "She's a strong woman, but she's very vulnerable. When I was first doing her, she had a woman's face with a beard. She was a bearded strong woman, but she was way too serious. The show is about absurdity with serious issues, but a light, fun approach."
As she says, the show isn't all fun and games. More serious ideas linger below the surface of pieces like the Alien Fortune Teller, who spews eclectic, random fortunes that might sound familiar: "Beware the axis of evil wrongdoers" and "Do not blush. Love is a common embarassment to many."
"After 20 years of creating public art, Joseph was tired of big, shiny, spray-painted objects, she says, and longed to return to the social issues she was first interested in, including the treatment of women in society. She began to create simple drawings in 1998, and those eventually grew and transformed into the sideshow.
Joy Armstrong, assistant curator at the FAC, found the sideshow during her search for work by local and regional artists, and immediately saw it could work within the "Gods and Monsters" theme. She describes Joseph's work as an exploration into how society views women as both gods and monsters.
"They're revered in one sense as sex objects and revered as mothers," Armstrong says. "But at the same time, they're looked down on and objectified. She's looking at both sides of a woman."
The installation is still a work in progress, Joseph says, though she'll have no problem filling 6,500 square feet of space inside the El Pomar Gallery at the FAC.
"The issues I started dealing with in the drawings in '98 - the situation of violence with women - I don't think we've solved any of these issues. We haven't gone anywhere. We're still being threatened all the time - abortions, the environment, the way people treat animals. I think we have not come to terms at all with any important issues confronting humanity and our planet. That makes me amazed."
"Pamela Joseph's Sideshow of the Absurd"
When: Members' opening 5-7 p.m. Friday, open to the public Saturday, through Jan. 12
Where: Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Tickets: $8.50-$10, free FAC members and 4 and younger; 634-5583, csfineartscenter.org