Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 3, 2015
Robin Jaffee Frank, ed. Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 Exh. cat. Hartford and New Haven: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2015. 304 pp.; 228 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Hardcover $50.00 (9780300189902)
Exhibition schedule: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, January 31–May 31, 2015; San Diego Museum of Art, July 11–October 13, 2015; Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015–March 13, 2016; McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, May 11–September 11, 2016
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Joseph Stella. Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913–14). Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Gift of Collection Société Anonyme, 1941.689.

As I walked through the Wadsworth Atheneum’s recent large-scale exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, I could not help but ask: Did we really need a show on Coney Island? What does it bring to the intellectual and aesthetic table, so to speak, that would be important or crucial now? In theory, there are a number of compelling reasons to mount this show: a Coney Island exhibition would span a broad historical period; pull from a diversity of objects and media, thus expanding museum dialogues; and provide a platform for confronting race, class, gender, sexuality, and dis/ability in ways that could bring audiences into conversation with some of today’s most cutting edge theory about bodies, space, and visual culture. The works also promise to be visually fun, bright, blinking, loud, obvious, knowing, and slippery, allowing the exhibition to both wax nostalgic and confront the new, appealing to a broad audience while pushing people to rethink nation and fantasy, leisure and pleasure, class and time. The catalogue, edited by Robin Jaffee Frank who also curated the show, proclaims (in a twist on Dorothy’s famous phrase from the Wizard of Oz) that there is “no place like Coney Island” (198). John Kasson elaborates in his introduction to the volume that “behind this sensory surface flicker and haunt deeper mysteries, whether sacred or profane, about what it means to be living in modern America” (7). To illustrate the “sensory surface” and “deeper mysteries” the exhibition packs a tremendous amount into a small space; over one hundred and forty paintings, screens, and objects compete for attention on every candy-colored wall. The catalogue is likewise crowded with images, explanations, and exaltations about the wonder of Coney Island. Yet like a child at the end of a day there, the exhibition and catalogue left me with a distinct feeling of being overtired but still wanting more.

To be fair, Frank was faced with a challenging task to make this material seem fresh. Only two years ago, the New-York Historical Society mounted a deliciously focused show, Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York, that featured works about Coney Island. Marsh’s paintings reward close looking, and punish it at times, revealing ever more complex, subversive, and disturbing imagery and arguments about bodies and capitalism; his Pip and Flip (1932) from the Swing Time exhibition is here again in the Coney Island show. Though his image highlights the banners advertising sideshow performers, it is the stretched, awkward, strangely disjointed bodies of the crowd that prove most visually arresting. Although the Historical Society’s exhibition primarily focused on Marsh, pulling from its impressive collection enabled it to broaden the scope of the exhibition with a multitude of photographs, works on paper, and historical ephemera. These images and the framing of that 2013 exhibition make some of the choices at the Wadsworth seem staid. Additionally, many other works in the show are well familiar, frequently exhibited, or do little to reveal historical and art-historical anomalies, mysteries, or tensions. For example, it might surprise some to consider William Merritt Chase’s Landscape, near Coney Island (ca. 1886) and how park-like and wild the geography looks, but this is a thin revelation. The painting itself is lovely, but typical of Chase’s works from this period, and ultimately the piece does little to provide new insight into discussions about land management or urbanization, or even American nineteenth-century landscape painting. Similarly, Joseph Stella’s Battle of the Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913–14), Frank Stella’s Coney Island (1958), and several works by Diane Arbus are all stunning, but to be expected, verifying an aesthetic and idea of Coney Island that many already know. Indeed, watching audiences move around the first few rooms I was struck by how little they seemed to look at the works, but responded more to their own familiarity with them, as if seeing old friends. This is not inherently negative: who can really complain, after all, about visiting again the Stellas and their vibrant, ringing works? Yet, one gets the sense less of reimagining Coney Island and the visual and cultural work done there, and more the impression of a recoronation of a fantasy of modern America as a place that is bold, audacious, rebellious, and sassy. This does little to provoke rethinking or reevaluation of the art. It is good fun to see the elegant, dramatic, and detailed carousel animals stand next to paintings and near postcards, but the works do not seem to grow or shift with the installation and this proximity.

The central framing device for the exhibition and catalogue is spelled out in the subtitle’s phrase “American Dreamland,” and notions of dream, nightmare, myth, and desire hold together much of the critical intellectual and visual narrative. Yet Coney Island, while being all of these things, is also a geographic location, part of regional and national dialogues about urbanism, suburbs, and tourism. It is a place of concrete and sand, labor and lives. In wedding the analysis and critical voice of Coney Island so tightly to dreams and mythologies, some of the exhibition is again rendered generic, discouraging critical inquiry and making Coney Island more a concept than a place with a history and diversity. This emphasis on dreamscapes has the tendency to disappear individual stories and lives from the depiction of Coney Island. There are people who have lived there for generations, many of whom commute to jobs in New York City, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and even Connecticut. Additionally, there are those that work at Coney Island, with their hopes and dreams, the conditions of their labors, and their paychecks inextricable from the fantasies and nightmares they aid in producing. None of the demographics, specifics of shifting immigrant populations, interior political forces dominating city planning, or even detailed maps of the area are highlighted in the exhibition, the kind of historical context that would have helped to anchor the viewer or enable the reader of the catalogue to drill down past generalizations.

If the specificity of place is fogged in the exhibition, chronology is forced to take the lead as the structural force moving viewers from object to object. Early works from the nineteenth century are given their own separate room at the beginning of the exhibition, suggesting that in the twentieth century Coney Island is cleaved from its past and thrust into the future. Moving through subsequent spaces, sub-themes of courtship and love and the thrill of mechanized movement are suggested, but the central push through the exhibition and objects is time. The mid-century is marked by war and then slow decline, with the end of the show emphasizing decay, and a sense that the ride is coming to an end. The last room features a grim, short, repeated clip from Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film, Requiem for a Dream, endlessly depicting a desperately-sad-in-a-heartthrob-kind-of-way Jared Leto looking out at his love standing on Steeplechase Pier, and then finding himself in fact falling out of a window. Even the magnificent, vibrant, and challenging installation by Swoon, Early Evening (2005)—one of the real standout works that many might not already know—is overshadowed by Leto and his never-ending bad dream. If chronology had been abandoned, or at least loosened, it might have allowed the objects and art some freedom to speak to each other in unconventional ways. A banner for “Jeanie Living Half Girl” (1940), which advertises a beautiful blond woman whose body ends just below her waist, for example, suggests interesting antagonisms with Daze’s Kiddyland Spirits (1995), featuring a ghostly man standing near a ride, his torso dissolving into odd jellyfish-like tentacles. This idea of “living half” feels rich, as do issues of the visibility and invisibility of bodies in commercial contexts, but they are left unexplored. Chronology, like dreams, becomes a stifling frame, encouraging the viewer to hew to specific tracks of thought or sight.

Ultimately, the exhibition and catalogue work hard to sell the intellectual and aesthetic value of thinking about the dream of Coney Island. Indeed, Frank has amassed some impressive works for the show and thoughtful scholarship in the catalogue. Perhaps the problem is not the exhibition, the scholarship, or the art, but Coney Island and the American Dream itself, at once too much and not enough.

Alexis L. Boylan
Assistant Professor; Joint Appointment in the Art and Art History Department and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program; University of Connecticut

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.