The Mermaid Parade, Coney Island, Brooklyn and The Mermaid Show, The Right Bank Gallery • Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Women, body painted, writhing on moving vehicles, 14’ arms, dresses made of PVC tentacles, these are a few of life’s simple pleasures. Or are they? What is it about the way-out performances, the sometimes insanely different, that seems to be the driving force behind at least the social side of art? It is not just novelty, showmanship, the libido or drunken antics, although there is a good deal of that for the mix. One can argue that artists themselves, despite the self-ingratiating nature of their creativity, are one segment of the human population that can open up and stretch their communication and expression into phantasmagoric and Transcendent occurrences. One could also argue that a performance aspect of art has driven the more product and market-centered art world and keeps it alive and communicative. Think of it. Not since kindergarten can an entire population contribute to the creation of something intriguing, entertaining, and challenging as it can in a group performance setting (and they don’t have to go into the complexities of Renaissance technique).
The Mermaid Parade in Coney Island this year was such an occurrence blending rednecks, Goths, suburbanites, bikers, with a good segment of the art world (at least that which can make it to Brooklyn). Artists have long been intrigued with the strange— whether it is mental hospitals, freak shows, tribal art, or deformities. This is Coney Island, beauty and the beast or deformity meets Impressionism (the ocean and whitecaps are a stone’s throw away) and almost every type of human being can be found there (barring Midwest Christians). As long as one doesn’t mind crowds, the celebratory air, plentiful refreshments, lazy but intense sun, bountiful décor (most of it on the body sometimes in the form of tattoos) keeps everyone getting along (which is a performance in itself). Costumes ranged from Last of the Las Vegas Show Pearls, a bevy of pasty clad mermaids, radiation mutated sea life, a fanged deep-sea fish dress, the funky and The Hungry Marching Band (who incidentally took first prize for music). Half of the performance aspect took place with the interaction with the crowd. This carried over to the judges who were as Surreal as ever dismissing flirtation and blatantly asked for bribes of beer in the 90-degree weather. Mermaids were nude and green, large breasted on Chevys. Pirates wore G-strings standing on the top of SUV’s trimmed with wood to make a boat. But there were still plenty of clothes mostly in the form of appliance appendages, molded foam, and stilt extended underwear.
Sounds like a party, and it was. However, there are other things being expressed in this bacchanal. The show at The Right Bank Gallery demonstrated some of the variations of the parade. This was the third year and possibly last year of this show at the gallery café. Again, it was curated by Carri Skoczek. One theme that emerges from the parade is the idea of transformation of identity personified in a mermaid who can transfer into a woman. In this show a mermaid is changed into a “Dogmaid” (with dog’s head by an artist named Enrico), a black merman (two portraits of a black man and white woman with swaddling fish tails by Joe Silva), a robust black mermaid by Jackie Amos, a game board (a work by Sandra Greuel with a transparent color dotted gameboard covering three painted mermaids), and a mermaid with a fishhead and woman’s legs (a diptych by Roberta Kleim where a real mermaid dreams of being a fishmaid who can dance in high heal shoes). Despite the oddities at Coney Island (one work by Eve Gilbert depicts headlines on a boardwalk such as “Headless Women Alive” or “Decapitated Coeds” with a potato head walking by), the transformations here seem positive as if a creative energy is refracted in steamy summer heat into a myriad of manifestations.Bill Rodgers “Full Metal Neptune” is a conglomeration of found metal utensils creating a dimensional figure complete with smiling battered fan guard, ribbed serving-plate lungs and ironing board torso. Carlo Grassini’s “Mermaids Embrace” is a brightly painted portrait of embracing party mermaid divas with make-up, crinkled hair, and tongues entwined. A change of identity is commonly associated with performance and gay culture (so there could have been some Midwestern Christians hiding in the crowd), but what is this transformation beyond mere dress-up Halloween fare?
One idea presented in the gallery show is that of vanity and world view such as Diane Sbano’s kitten framed mirror, Carri Skoczek’s lounging nub nippled eight foot mermaid doll, Jil Andante’s gilded but empty “Mermaid on a Box” and Kei Anderson’s “Portable Beach”, which is a box carrying sand with a color picture of gently lapping waves on the inside cover. Water has always carried with it an energetic, positive but in its depths, a mysterious aspect. A mermaid is gorgeous but also trapped in her world as many of us feel in our own world at times. Several depictions of mermaids in this show demonstrate the mystery and permeating blue mood. Mark Albright paints a green saturated mermaid in environment à la Picasso’s blue period showing the calmness and envy associated with that color. Tara Moynihan’s mermaid is a delicately pretty mermaid whispering small against an intense green background. Audrey Frank Anastasi “Fish Fantasy” is a gracefully swimming mermaid surrounded by scattering fish, the nature of swimming, a good chance to explore variations in the spontaneous use of paint. A beautiful kind of intrigue is part of the stereotype of women whose physical beauty lays them vulnerable off-hand associations. Rysard Semko (who is a man) presents a splayed leg mermaid whose womb is opened and large like a ripe fruit. Alexandra Limbert’s “Filleted Mermaid” is a blonde doll’s head and hands place on a metal armature in the shape of fish bones demonstrating a mixture of fantasy and reality as if women are one link in a great food chain.
If water is the mystery and a life force, it is also the source of great change and a great leveler. In the sludge from which we all emerged, identities, and ego did not exist. A change of appearance loosens one’s rigid everyday identity that allows creativity to flow. From the spraying fire pump to the rolling wave, the energy of water calls to us. Our answer sometimes is a scream or cry in the depths often in the form of some transformation in behavior. Wearing crazy outfits and attending such a celebration as The Mermaid Parade may be a cry for attention but it is also an attempt at communication and expression on another level, a level where we do not all wear business suits or black spandex, a level where originality might exist but does not matter. This is the flow that drives creativity. There is a piece by an artist named Tubbs called “Evian ain’t so hot” in which this phrase is scrawled across a mermaid’s chest which reminds us that we live in another world apart from the mermaids of fantasy. In our world, we look into the depths with sounding devices and as in the foamed framed photo-sounding negatives in Lisa Levy’s photo montage, the answer is in the form of groups of tiny dots from below. Our strength for evolution is the ability to relate together as a group of connected individuals whose flow and energy can ride against the waves and sharks of this world to find a new kind of creativity.

Stuart Nicholson
New York, New York