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I just want to be taken seriously as an artist…: Clown Portraits Shari Hatt

June 28, 2008 - August 31, 2008

AWE Gallery

Clowns provoke an array of emotions in people of all ages. No one is immune. They mock authority, violate taboos, celebrate the obscene and offend conventions of good taste and decorum. With this exhibition, Toronto-based artist Shari Hatt brings clowns and the art world together in a fascinating dialogue between high and low culture.

No clowing around, Hatt really has been challenging the mystique of the art world, and people’s often negative perceptions of it, for years. Originally from Nova Scotia of Mi’kmaq and Acadian descent, Hatt brings a unique perspective of the art world. A mature student when she began studying art at Concordia University in Montreal, she was as unfamiliar with the ivory tower as she was with the arts community. But Hatt quickly garnered national attention for her unique photographs of bizarre subjects. In 2001, after less than a decade of exhibiting her work, she recieved The Duke and Duchess of York Photography Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts.

In a nutshell Hatt’s work deals with class, gender and the way in which they are valued and represented in contemporary soceity. She often works with low-brow subject matter – everything from Elvis and Liberace to dogs and sideshow freaks – that reflect sterotypes about taste, social heirarchies and identity. Her goal with public gallery exhibitions is to reach beyond their traditional audience to those with a personal or even prurient interest in the subjects she portrays. And her subjects follow suit by gazing right back at them.

The Clown Portraits (2006) are large color photographs of professional clowns, whose close up faces can instill fear in children and adults. They emerge from Hatt’s interest in the maligned populist genre of paintings, at times on black velvet, that depict clowns in various emotional states. In a similar fashion, I just want to be taken seriously as an artist….(2007) is a continuous looped video without narrative, structure or even a begining or an end. It relates to her previous series of photographs Coney Island Circus Sideshow and the tradition of the “ten-in-one” schedule of continuous performances for a single ticket price. Patrons arrive at any time to see all the acts; when you have seen the same act twice, its time to leave.

In the video’s cynical reflection on the art world clowns emerge from a dark background to tell clichéd jokes about artists, connoisseurs, collectors and dealers. These terrible jokes allude to the pervasive negative perception of art and artists on the one hand, and artistic self-doubt on the other. The self deprecating artist-as-clown plays up to the clichéd idea of the artist in the popular imagination demonstrating both the artist’s insecurity and his or her complicity in the construction of this stereotype. Without a practical purpose, artmaking is often seen as both valuable and valueless, both pretentious and absurd. Certain art practices that people do not readily understand, abstraction and performance art for example, are not taken seriously. More traditional art that displays a high degree of skill is admired and respected.

Clowns typically straddle the line between tragedy and comedy. This is a boundary that artists must negotiate as well. It is this dichotimy along with our relationship to it, that Hatt examines in this remarkable body of work.

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