There are many phobias available to the modern consumer of fear, from the widely shared dread of public speaking, to being buried alive and, of course, the French. Then there are the truly exotic tics. Fear of chins? Geniophobia. Of being tickled by feathers? Pteronophobia. Or a personal favorite: fear of dinner table conversation, deipnophobia.
Laugh if you dare (fear of laughter? geliophobia) but there are allegedly 6.3 million Americans who suffer from specific phobias, and for those afflicted with the completely rational fear of scary clowns -- coulrophobia -- we have some very valuable advice: Do not under any circumstances befriend Diane Keaton or Robert Berman.
Really: Stay out of Diane Keaton's study.
Which brings us to this: The popular actress Keaton and the art dealer Berman have joined together to present an exhibit and coffee-table book celebrating the clown painting.
Not the clown subjects of Picasso and Beckmann, Hopper and Matisse, though there is an adjunct exhibit of high art, but the really bad clown paintings composed by Sunday amateurs and now found in motel parking lots, flea markets and eBay, retailing for $5 and up. The portraits of Weary Willy and Ronald McDonald, Clarabell and Bozo.
The Keaton Collection numbers around 300, but she has tried to control herself compared with Berman, who has amassed more than 1,000 clown paintings and is still going strong. "Though I am much more selective today," he admits, buying only "good bad clown paintings," as he puts it, rather than "bad bad clown paintings."
So you have been warned, coulrophobes.
As Berman puts it: "One clown painting alone may look like a silly indulgence, but five clown paintings together gets more interesting. Ten clowns on the same wall speak quite potently." Then he gets weird: "I dream of a gallery full of clowns."
Walking into Berman's gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, a visitor enters a space hung salon-style with hundreds of Keaton and Berman clown paintings, from floor to ceiling, walls covered with bulbous noses, orange hair, red mouths and sad clown eyes. That, and their dirty white gloves (shudder).
Berman confesses that some cannot handle the experience. "They come in and look around and leave," he says. For the sensitive, there is an acidy, out-of-body-type experience, a flashback to early clown scares at kiddie birthday bashes or the circus.
Ahh, but others stop and stare. What do they see in those poses of clown repose? The heavy heart of Fellini? Or a pop-cult train wreck of maudlin glop? Or something else? "Their eternal look of sheer astonishment at the uncertainty of life talks to me," Keaton wrote.
It is a spoof, but with a point. Dadaist gesture? A urinal in the Louvre? Toffs making fun? Or highbrows looking for truth in a paint- by-numbers genre that competes with dogs playing poker?
Keaton is a well-known and intelligent collector of kitsch. For some time, she had a real jones for cheap religious iconography, the Jesus-on-velvet phase. Then one day at a swap meet, she happened upon "a clown painting I liked," a fellow with a big lapping dog's tongue and atop his greasepainted head, a cactus in a pot for a hat. "And I thought it was beautiful," she says.
So it began.
One Sunday at the famous flea market held at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, Berman was admiring a clown painting and asked its price. He was thinking 10 bucks, oak frame included. The dealer asked for much more. Berman tried to haggle, but no, the seller told Berman that if he didn't want the painting, "Diane Keaton would."
"That's when I knew there was someone else out there," Berman says. The two eventually met, which led to the exhibit "A Thousand Clowns (Give or Take a Few)," and Keaton's book "Clown Paintings" (published by powerHouse Books).
"In an effort to understand the contempt comedians feel toward clowns and clown paintings," Keaton wrote, "I decided to call Woody Allen to see what he thought. It wasn't pretty."
But it is enlightening.
"The only thing I hate worse than clowns are clown paintings," Allen wrote in response to the art. "When it comes to images immortalized on canvas or black velvet, rather than clowns, my vote goes to something Rubenesque, unencumbered by costume and preferably blonde."
Creepy, no? Keaton elicited clown riffs from Steve Martin, Martin Short, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Don Knotts, Dick Van Dyke, Candice Bergen, Roseanne, Ben Stiller and others.
"Without exception," Keaton saw, "they were willing to take on the subject, but only a few of them had kind words."
This is director John Waters: "If I met someone who told me he or she wanted to be a clown, I'd avoid that person. Remember John Wayne Gacy? He dressed as a clown in his spare time when he wasn't murdering young boys in the basement of his Chicago home." But Waters did say that in the cult-fav "Pink Flamingos," he chose to paint his star, Divine, in alarming makeup.
"I hated all of them," Carol Burnett wrote of early clown encounters. "They weren't funny. They were scary. There was something wrong with them, and I was the only kid in the world who was on to them."
Larry David relates memories of scary clowns hitting his younger self with rubber mallets. "My thanks to Diane Keaton for giving me this opportunity to revisit an incident that I have worked so hard to forget, lo these many years. I would encourage her to find a new pastime, one that does not include the collecting of these monstrous and hideous clowns."
Lisa Kudrow admits that "I have pretty strong feelings of disdain for clowns. This is interesting because many argue that all performers are ultimately clowns in some form. And as a performer, I'm mostly associated with 'witless' characters. Maybe the disdain is for myself. Maybe it's a monotonous loop of self-loathing channeled into performing for love and attention."
Now we're getting somewhere.
Phyllis Diller: "Although I am a stand-up comic, underneath it all, I'm a CLOWN."
Nathan Lane looked into the dark corners, too: "So, whether I like it or not, I am a member of the clown family. I have followed countless others out of some tiny little car and made my way into the show business circus. And the outrageousness of being one and what lies beneath can be found in these paintings. It's better not to discuss them, just as it's always better not to discuss comedy. Think of this as a beautifully assembled Rorschach test and see where it takes you. You might see yourself. And if you do, I'd be happy to help you get in touch with a top-notch mental health professional."
Which leads us to Jerry Lewis. "When we think of the bulbous red nose of the clown, we think of laughter. . . . I love clown paintings. There is so much humor, sadness, and pride. . . . I know them. I am a clown at heart, in body, and in mind. I'm proud of that."
The exhibit runs through mid-December, and then Berman hopes a museum will mount a broad review of high and low clown art. It appears he and Keaton are onto something -- and what exactly that is, is in the eye of the beholder.
"A Thousand Clowns (Give or Take a Few)" runs through mid-December at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. Visit www.robertbermangallery.com for more information. For information on "Clown Paintings" by Diane Keaton, visit www.powerhousebooks.com