C.T. McClusky: Circus Surreal

17 September - 24 October 2020
Press release

The only known beginning of C. T. McClusky’s story dates back to a Sunday morning in 1975 when a middle-aged woman named Corine set up a booth at the Penny Flea Market Island Drive in Alameda, California. A battered old suitcase glued to a large, worn-out paper cutout of the word CIRCUS stood there silently shouting out its name amid the bric-à-brac, and it caught the attention of John Turner—then a volunteer curator at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco. With just one brief look at the suitcase’s contents, he realized he had “stumbled upon a treasure.” It was relayed to Turner that McClusky was a circus clown who lived during the winter seasons between the late 1940s and mid 1950s in an Oakland boarding house run by Corine’s mother. He kept few personal belongings there other than a stack of Life magazines and newspapers; he occupied his time off the road creating mixed-media collages that resurrected the circus in its absence and on occasion, Corine recalled, would present a work to her or one of her playmates.


Circus Surreal, McClusky’s gallery debut almost a half century after his discovery, presents a selection of 22 works—many of which have never been exhibited—out of the 53 known to exist. Each work transports the viewer to a distinct setting conjured with basic art supplies and populated with pictures from newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, comic strips, animal cracker boxes, and cigarette packs. The narrative unfolds throughout landscapes, cityscapes, and interiors and revolves primarily around the big top—the main tent of a circus. Outside we see moments before, in between, and after shows: the tent under construction (or deconstruction); the stir and cacophony of the crowds on circus day; calm panoramas where performers—human and animal—linger in crayon-colored pastures with clothes hung up to dry and vibrant orange suns floating over the horizon. Inside the big top scenes are always mid-performance, a never-ending present brimming with equestrian and acrobatic feats, elephant stunts, tightrope walkers, showgirls (the circus glitterati sometimes literally sprinkled with glitter), clowns and their buffoonery, big-cat trainers, vendors carrying trays with nuts and soft drinks, balloons, billowing American flags, and the audience—a blurred mass—all suspended at the height of reverie.



Originally a duplicate of its European counterpart, the circus in America quickly transcended its antebellum format to become a unique extravaganza inconceivable elsewhere. Scholars link the portable design of the American circus to the country’s vast frontier; its scope to the nineteenth-century expansion of the railroad system, connecting eastern cities to the Wild West; and its broad appeal and flamboyant aesthetic to the wit and grit of some of the nation’s early capitalist trailblazers, who recognized that fantasy was big business.


The circus had its golden age between the early 1880s and 1920, when circuses mushroomed into colossal, collapsible villages that could travel by circus wagons from one location to the next—wagons that in McClusky’s works are embellished with shimmering magenta, gold, silver, purple, and red foil chocolate wrappers. When the circus reached its destination, it unfolded into many tents filling several acres. The smaller structures that McClusky sketches orbiting the big top could’ve been the menagerie and “freak show” pavilions showcasing the artificial cohabitation of wild beasts and human oddities, respectively—the circus was its own version of democratic, but it was never politically correct.


P. T. Barnum (“America’s Greatest Showman”) expanded the circus’s traditional one-ring performance with a second ring, and then a third in 1881 immediately after his merger with competitor James A. Bailey. This gave birth to the iconic three-ring circus, a universe unto its own where a series of baroque, comical, and death-defying acts gripped thousands of spectators in shared delight and astonishment. In this setting, McClusky always emphasizes the area where the band is playing, telling us that music was the unifying component and underscored the extravagant barrage of visual stimuli.


The circus’s proclivity to cannibalize itself ultimately led to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey combined shows in 1919, the biggest spectacle of its kind ever. Soon after 1920, however, the great volume and complexity of circus enterprises started to become obsolete, and like a reverse magic trick they began to shrink. We don’t know what circus carried McClusky in its congress of clowns—references to both the Ringling and Barnum names are embedded in his work—but we do know that he was creating his collages at a time when the concept of the circus had quickly fallen out of fashion in favor of more practical, ubiquitous forms of entertainment. No longer able to parade into towns and cities to cancel life as usual, the circus shed apparatuses until all that remained to shed was the big top. In 1956, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus was staged under a canvas tent for the last time, shifting to stadium arenas until 2017, when it performed its final show.



If McClusky was born around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, as a youth he was right in the middle of the second Industrial Revolution’s avalanche of new technology following the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. New inventions included the telegraph, the phonograph, the incandescent lightbulb, telephone, radio, motion pictures, automobiles, aircrafts, and television. The rise of mass marketing and consumer culture in postwar America brought a proliferation of imagery of this new world across print media. McClusky appropriated and repurposed pieces of this graphic excess into his mental geography—materializing again and again in his collages—and in doing so he found a formal and spiritual outlet that paralleled Surrealism’s best efforts to free the unconscious mind from creative restraints. McClusky’s collage milieux engage in all manner of interesting visual discrepancies: photography converges with caricature; black-and-white with Technicolor; naturalism with hyperbole; perspective and proportion are thoroughly out of synch. As John Turner points out,* the artist subscribes to a kind of hieratic visual logic, indicating importance by size and not necessarily by placement—so we see a cheetah that could match King Kong, or a ringmaster towering over the big top, almost audibly summoning us with his trumpet.


Adding to this representational pastiche, the artist’s circus landscapes include a junction of signifiers from different settings and time periods. The crowd around the big top includes fashionable people dressed in business or casual attire, men in factory-work clothing, suburban families and urban loners, mounted cowboys in hats and neckerchiefs, Plains Indians in feathered headdress. McClusky’s fixation with modes of transportation mirrors that of a collector: passenger and freight trains (steam engines, diesel, and electric locomotives), airplanes, automobiles, trucks, buses, trolleys, trailers, motorcycles; even prairie schooners make an appearance around his circus. His particular insistence on trains and airplanes suggests a sense of connectivity—to an expanse outside the picture—but also estrangement and dislocation, especially when they travel at unstable or illogical angles.


Visual art tends to portray the circus as a tightly circumscribed microcosm somewhat impervious to its surroundings; the place where misfits ran off to live adventurous, colorful lives, the portal through which spectators could escape to a more glamorous, intrepid dimension. McClusky captures this archetypal facet of the circus, but he also contextualizes it within a world in constant shift and confronts it with an increasingly fragmented individual experience. It is here, where this uniquely positioned artist and his wildly idiosyncratic practice meet a wider historical context, that this body of work becomes so powerful. We’ll never know what fire compelled this performer from the darkest corner of clown alley to create the oeuvre that is now his legacy, but his effort seems akin to Don Quixote’s impossible truth; the quest to comprehend one’s own experience as it navigates the threshold between fantasy and reality.




Davis, Janet M. “The Circus Americanized.” In The American Circus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 23–51.
* Turner, John. “The Collages of C. T. McClusky,” Folk Art 25, no. 2 (2000): 30–37.
“The Circus.” American Experience. Directed by Sharon Grimberg. PBS, 2018.

Installation Views
C.T. McClusky was a circus clown who spent the winter seasons between the late 1940s and mid 1950s at a boarding house in Oakland, California. Working with found materials, he completed 53 mixed media collages on cardboard incorporating photographic cutouts, illustrations, as well as ephemera such as chocolate and candy wrappers. His vignettes from circus life are candid, nostalgic, and strikingly surreal. This oeuvre was discovered in 1975 by John Turner--then curator at the Museum of Craft and Folk art in San Francisco.
Circus Surreal will be McClusky's gallery debut almost half a century after the discovery of this body of work.