Serial Killer, Clown, & Artist : The John Wayne Gacy Art Show
By Jillian Robertson
Fear of clowns is as old as the oversized shoes and greasepaint they wear. “Coulrophobia” affects as many as 42 percent of Americans, but sometimes the creepy clowns leave the realm of Stephen King’s IT and other fictional incarnations on the big and small screen.
Sometimes the monsters are real.
It’s May 10th, 2018. Twenty-four years ago, today, serial killer John Wayne Gacy aka “Pogo the Killer Clown” was executed by lethal injection. Today also marks the launch of “Goodbye Pogo,” an exhibit showcasing Gacy’s original artwork, at a downtown Los Angeles gallery with an eerily fitting name — Lethal Amounts.
Whether it’s morbid curiosity, confronting a nasty case of coulrophobia, or something else entirely, the paintings of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy have drawn crowds in cities around the country and it looks like Los Angeles will be no different. As the sun set, the line wrapped around the block.
Upon entering the gallery, paintings of clowns famous, Tim Curry’s IT and self-portraits of Gacy himself as Pogo, and less famous, line the walls of the gallery. The clowns are interspersed with other disturbing artifacts, like paintings of Charles Manson, Hitler, and in a small glass case, a taxidermied rat in Gacy-esque clown attire, clutching a bunch of tiny balloons.
Each painting subject is captured in a simplistic, childlike style, in primary colors. I feel like I’m looking at the refrigerator art of the world’s most psychopathic grade schooler. This is not an exhibit for the squeamish or the faint of heart.
Gacy on the Road
Back in 2011, a splashy CNN headline, “Controversial Serial Killer’s Paintings Go On Display in Las Vegas,” heralded the arrival of the artwork in Las Vegas. The artwork went on display at the Arts Factory in Las Vegas as part of a charity auction, but the recipient of the charity auction, National Center for Victims of Violent Crime, later refused to accept the auction proceeds, explaining that “benefiting from an activity relating to such egregious and violent crimes would be in poor taste to the extreme.”
Controversy has tailed public exhibitions of Gacy’s art ever since.
Lethal Amounts will donate a portion of ticket sales to NCVVC as well, though they don’t expect the charity to accept the donation this time either. But that’s not the point, said Lethal Amounts owner Danny Fuentes. “It’s not so much about making sure that we check the list off of what we’re supposed to do. I think it’s just a nice way of saying like we’re not trying to exploit here. We’re trying to have a dialogue about it.”
I had the opportunity to have a dialogue with several show attendees, including a couple who had just purchased their first Gacy painting and a soccer mom in sparkly pink shoes wearing a charm bracelet full of serial killer charms.
A Museum of Horrors
The artwork, with the exception of a handful of pieces from Fuente’s private collection, is up for sale and I had the chance to chat with Bridget and Shane, a couple who purchased two paintings for their home that, in their words, isn’t dissimilar from the Addams family’s living room. It’s a “museum of horrors,” Bridget explained.
Some of Gacy’s artwork is too much for even their edgy aesthetic, though.
“Hitler was a runner up,” said Bridget, without apparent irony.
“Hitler was a runner up,” said Bridget, without apparent irony.
She went on to explain that she preferred the paintings that appeared banal, but upon closer inspection, was revealed to be a Gacy. “At first glance if you’re not quite sure. Oh, isn’t that cute,” said Bridget. “But then you look close, like, oh my god.”
The paintings they ultimately selected, Pogo the Clown and a skull, set the couple back $1,000, or “two paychecks,” as Shane Drolly noted.
Serial killer art is, if nothing else, a conversation starter. And that’s exactly what Bridget and Shane want. “I have a lot of friends… I’ve known you for 10 years and we’ve had the exact same conversation,” said Shane. “Now, I’ll sit down and we can all have our opinions and, you know, see if there are any fistfights in the living room.”
Serial killer art falls under the category of outsider art, used to describe artists without formal training and from outside the fine art world. Outsiders in more ways than one, serial killer art brings with it no small amount of controversy. But not all serial killer art is created equal. Some, I learned, is considered more valuable than others.
Charles Manson, for example, “would sign anything other inmates would bring him,” explained Fuentes, diluting the value of his art and calling into question its authenticity. Gacy art by contrast, has been meticulously cataloged, by Gacy himself. “He used serial numbers,” Fuentes explained. “So you could tell originals and the timeline he painted them.”
A serial killer artist with a love of serial numbers? Showcased on the anniversary of his lethal injection at a gallery called Lethal Amounts? Can’t help but appreciate the fitting (albeit creepy) parallels.
Dubbed “murderabilia,” the sale of this type of artwork and related memorabilia is controlled under the Son of Sam law, a piece of legislation put in place by New York legislators in the midst of the trial of serial killer David Berkowitz, aka the “Son of Sam,” who terrorized Manhattan in the summer of 1976. The law is shorthand for any laws that prohibit criminals from profiting from their own notoriety.
The law was ultimately struck down in 1991 as a violation of first amendment rights, opening up the possibility of Gacy making money on the sale of his artwork, were he alive to collect.
As it stands, the current manager of Gacy’s estate wishes to remain anonymous, though we know he lives in Vegas, where the artwork was originally shown, and was a former pen pal of Gacy’s while he was in prison.
Prime Time, True Crime
This show is part of a larger groundswell. The fascination with true crime and murder has permeated pop culture, with shows like Making A Murderer and MindHunter, and podcasts like My Favorite Murder. My Favorite Murder cohost Karen Kilgariff shed some light on why this type of content may be so appealing, despite its horrific nature.
“It’s not ‘favorite,’ like, I love this murder,” Hardstark said, in an interview with Rolling Stone. “It’s the one I really want to talk to you about, because it’s so insane. It’s the audio equivalent of squinting through your fingers at a slasher film.”
Some attendees, though, prefer to stare rather than squint. “I’ve always been drawn to the darkness,” another show attendee told me. All kinds are drawn to this subject, and not always the ones you’d expect. A woman in sparkly pink tennis shoes and a floral blouse chatted up others waiting in line and took a moment to share with me her prized possession: a serial killer charm bracelet.
“They’re all charms for different murders. This is Ted Bundy’s Volkswagen… And then, here’s Gacy’s balloons. And they all have different meaning, but those are my two favorites.”
Turns out serial killer art fans, much like serial killers themselves, are tough to pick out in a crowd. They just look like everyone else.
1226 W 7th St
Los Angeles, Californi
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Posted by Lethal Amounts on Friday, April 27, 2018