Since evolving from swampy farmland into the so-called People’s Playground in the late 1800s, Coney Island has served as the go-to destination for some of New York City’s weirdest characters: exhibitionist mermaids, paintball freaks, fortune tellers, elephant brothel patrons, and, more recently, lifesize SpongeBobs and Mickey Mouses. All of which has helped make Coney Island a muse for artists, photographers, and filmmakers for more than 150 years.
The Brooklyn Museum has just announced they’ll soon be opening a major exhibition dedicated to the whimsical visual record such artists have created, called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008.
The mixed-media exhibit captures Coney Island’s campy, trippy aesthetic with a hodgepodge of photographs by the likes of Walker Evans, Weegee, Bruce Davidson, and Diane Arbus (since Coney Island was basically tailor-made for a Diane Arbus photo shoot). Also on view are pastoral seascapes from the 1800s; sideshow posters galore; a turn-of-the-century gambling wheel and carousel animals presented like sculpture; film stills from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream; and a modernist abstract composition by Frank Stella. With red and yellow stripes around a blue square, Stella distills the sand and sea and sun into a primary-colored flag for Brooklyn’s most famous destination.
In these pictures, Coney Island serves as a microcosm of American mass culture as a whole, and the chronology of 140 art objects here chart major societal shifts, from the dawn of the Great Depression to desegregation. “The modern American mass-culture industry was born at Coney Island, and the constant novelty of the resort made it a seductively liberating subject for artists,” Dr. Robin Jaffee Frank, curator of the exhibit, which Wadsworth Athenaeum helped organize, said in a statement. “What these artists saw from 1861 to 2008 at Coney Island, and the varied ways in which they chose to portray it, mirrored the aspirations and disappointments of the era and the country. Taken together, these tableaux of wonder and menace, hope and despair, dreams and nightmares become metaphors for the collective soul of a nation.”
A few images reflect the darker days of this collective soul, revealing a side of the island’s history that’s often glazed over in narratives of the place as all fun and games. One 1930 photograph by Edward J. Kelty shows the Harlem Black Birds, an African-American musical revue assembled for a sideshow at Coney Island. In the center of the image, famed tap dancer King Rastus Brown wears a derby and smokes a cigar, while two comics in blackface perch on booths labeled “HIGH CLASS COLORED REVUE.” It’s an example of the seamy underbelly of so-called Dreamland’s corner of the entertainment industry in the 30s, and a reminder of the segregation that plagued Coney Island until the 1960s–beaches and bathhouses had white-only sections. But works by contemporary artists like Daze and Swoon highlight the comparative diversity and freedom of modern-day Coney Island, the place former Borough President Marty Markowitz liked to call “America’s favorite playground.”
Here, a chronology of highlights from the upcoming exhibit.
Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008 is on view at The Brooklyn Museum from November 20th, 2015 to March 13, 2016.