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Thomas Woodruff’s FREAK PARADE is an ambitious and dazzling parade of images that celebrates beauty in aberrance. The Parade’s hapless yet noble characters march gaily across a black expanse, each member on a different panel. The procession begins with “Anatomy Boy,” an elegant lad flayed from the shoulders down, and ends with “Sweeper,” a grim reaper dressed in a costume that might be described as “heavy metal Watteau,” bringing up the rear. In between are thirty other attractions of wild imagistic imagination. One meets a “Man of Lettuce;” a tattooed panther; Siamese wolves in sheep’s clothing; a giant troubadour insect; a multi-breasted baton twirler; a virginal, footless somnambulist; and an assortment of many other memorable characters. They are all rendered in loving detail and delicately embellished with tiny rhinestones.
Woodruff began this project in late 2000 as a reaction against the global standardization of culture. A master of hybridizing vocabularies from the past and present, Woodruff references sideshow banners, Pompeian wall frescoes, Baroque religious paintings, theatrical posters, and Victorian penmanship charts to create a new yet oddly familiar world. It’s as if Renaissance artist Archimboldo collaborated on a project with Hollywood costumer Adrian. References to “normal” parades (Mummer, Tournament of Roses, Mardi Gras, Macy’s) are all here but turned on their heads Each image has a caption, title, or poem included. Written by the artist, these texts add another level of meaning to the pictures. They are deliberately subdued and darkened, and subvert the viewer’s usual response—so conditioned through advertising—to image and text.
Born in 1957, Thomas Woodruff has had an unusual career. He has had over 20 one-person exhibitions, and his work has been seen in museum shows internationally. His major gallery works are created in series. In the past these works have often been elegiac in nature and dealt with the AIDS epidemic. His shows have included the rocket ship series, “All Systems Go”(1999) and his group of 365 individual apple portraits, “Apple Canon” (1996). He has contributed award-winning illustrations to nearly every major periodical in America, and has created book jackets for novels by Anne Tyler, Robertson Davies, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many others. Woodruff illustrated Jack Handy’s “Big Thick Novel” for the Emmy award-winning season of Saturday Night Live. He has also designed for the theatre, most recently the décor and costumes for “Salome” at the Hawaiian Opera Theatre (2000). Woodruff worked as a tattooist in the late 1980s, and he has a cult status in the alternate art scene. He is presently the chair of the Department of Illustration and Cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. A documentary on this project, “Thomas Woodruff’s FREAK PARADE,” was produced in 2004 for Gallery HDTV.
Opening with the artist
Wednesday, January 27
Reception and book signing to follow
American Tattooed Ladies, 1882-1995 Wednesday, March 24
In conjunction with the exhibition Freak Parade by Thomas Woodruff, Milwaukee author Amelia Klem Osterud will talk about her newly released book The Tattooed Lady: A History. The book chronicles the lives of women who made sideshow livings by displaying their bodies onstage in an era when even a bit of ankle was considered scandalous. The first book of its kind, The Tattooed Lady uncovers the true stories behind these women, bringing them out of the sideshow realm and into their working-class realities. Combining thorough research with more than a hundred historical photos, this social history explores tattoo’s origins, women’s history, and circus lore. The Tattooed Lady pays tribute to a group of unique and amazing women whose legacy lives on.