The 30-foot-long wall of Stephen LaPierre’s Rocky Neck studio is covered from top to bottom with paintings of clowns. LaPierre’s oldest clown painting, the impetus for this wacky yet cerebral series, hangs at the room’s far end. Featuring a low-lit bar filled with face-painted patrons, the piece is darker and cruder than its more contemporary companions. Visitors to LaPierre’s studio would be hard-pressed not to notice another stark difference between “Clowns at the Bar” and the other works surrounding it: these clowns’ eyes look at one another, or the beers in their hands, rather than into the screens of cellphones. The latter such paintings form the bulk of LaPierre’s clown collection, several of which will be on view from April 1 until June 2 in a show called “Cirque du LaPierre” at Groton School’s de Menil Gallery.
Works in the collection primarily feature brightly-clothed clowns in action — shooting out of a cannon; playing brass instruments; careening downhill on a longboard. The pieces convey a sense of anxiety, as the figures perform ridiculous acts while completely absorbed by their outstretched phones.The clowns and their outrageous outfits, furry and balloon animal friends and ever-present devices are typically set against a warm-toned background of open space and somewhat clouded skies. Circus tents can sometimes be spotted in the distance.
The series was inspired by an off-handed comment: LaPierre quipped one night after poking his head into a local joint, “nothing but clowns in there.” The sentence lit a spark that remains burning seven years later. The original concept has since blossomed into a larger commentary on the digital age, American culture and the fragile balance that allows “the show to go on” in our social and political arenas.