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Introduction to Prodigies, James G. Mundie's Congress of Oddities

My series of drawings called Prodigies features portraits of ‘anomalous humans’ — sometimes called “monstrosities” or “freaks” — in contexts borrowed from famous artworks of the past.

In the spirit of the circus or carnival sideshow, where even a three-legged man would be re-invented to appear more interesting, I have created new ‘histories’ for my subjects in which fact and fancy are liberally mingled. The resulting images confront the viewer with something that at once seems familiar, humorous, and startling.

The freakshow has a theatrical heritage of stylized presentation that dates back many centuries. Very often, a great deal of fraud was involved, but this seemed only to delight patrons all the more.

Art history, like sideshow, has its own formal conventions and traditions; so it seems to me this blending of the aesthetic and the macabre is a natural pairing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture — especially since both appeal to one's voyeuristic inclinations. It is my hope that these images compel the viewer to linger and consider their own inhibitions and conceptions in relation to a subject which many consider taboo.

These images grew out of several interests: an affinity for portraiture, a passion for art history, and a natural curiosity for pathology. The first pieces in the series came about through playing in my sketchbook with some obscure Renaissance compositions which seemed to provide fertile ground for revision. Soon I found that favorite paintings — whether through narrative motif, setting, or gesture — suggested parallels to certain sideshow performers’ stage identities or conditions. One drawing led to another, and the series continues to evolve.

When deciding on a title for this series, I chose to avoid using the term “freak” outright because its modern usage has many negative connotations; however, among performers the term was considered an honorific. The freak was an exalted individual in the sideshow business; for as talented and flamboyant as a sword swallower, snake charmer, fire-eater, contortionist, or human ostrich might be, he or she would never equal the draw of a genuine ‘living curiosity’. The term freak itself is merely a shortened form of “freak of nature”, meaning simply that which deviates from the expected — the exception that proves the rule. I chose the word “prodigy” to describe these people because the term in its original meaning points to the larger historical view of these ‘strange people’: as portent, the exceptional or marvelous thing that inspires fear and wonder.

I invite those that may object to my choice of subject, or who fear the exploitation of a disabled minority, to consider the words of author Robert Bogdan who said:

‘Freak’ is a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people. It is not a person but the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation.†

As a Victorian sideshow talker might say to draw a crowd and ‘turn the tip’, “Here they are, splendidly fraudulent yet marvelous, brought forth for your edification and amusement. This Congress of Oddities awaits your intimate and learned inspection.”

James G. Mundie

Bogdan, Robert.  Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1988

Brief biography of James G. Mundie

James G. Mundie is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he majored in printmaking, and the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received his B.F.A. magna cum laude.

Mundie's drawings, paintings and prints have been exhibited widely at many locations, including: The Creative Artists Network (now the Center for Emerging Visual Artists), Federal Reserve Bank (Philadelphia), The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The University of Pennsylvania, Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, Townhouse Gallery (Belfast, Northern Ireland), Biet-Gavriel (Israel), Hunterdon Museum of Art, Kyoto Municipal Museum Annex (Japan), The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Nommo Gallery (Kampala, Uganda), Boston University, David Young Gallery at Marie Curie House (Edinburgh, Scotland), and many others.

Drawings from Prodigies have been exhibited at Creative Artists Network, Rosenfeld Gallery, Philadelphia Foundation, The University of Pennsylvania, Redux Contemporary Art Center, Orange Hill Art, Purdue University, and The Free Library of Philadelphia, among others. They have also been featured as part of the Delaware Art Museum's invitational Biennial 2000: Art at the New Millennium , and were the subject of two solo shows: a Challenge Exhibition at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, and the third exhibition in the Emerging Artist Series at the Woodmere Art Museum — for which the artist was graciously allowed to borrow supplementary ephemera from the collections of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and James Taylor's Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway. In September and October 2006, the series was presented as Congress of Oddities: James Mundie's Prodigies at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts.

Mundie has received numerous awards for his work, including a Creative Artists Network service grant, the Simone C. Titone Memorial Award, the Joseph Domjon Memorial Award, a Center for Emerging Visual Artists' Alumni Travel Grant, and others. James G. Mundie received a 2008 fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Mundie's work appears in the collections of The Book Arts Press, The New York Public Library, The Print Club of Albany, Spencer Museum of Art, The Kyoto International Woodprint Association, and others, including numerous private collections.

James Mundie and his wife, fellow artist Kate Kern Mundie, reside in South Philadelphia.

expanded curriculum vitae for James G. Mundie


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All Images and Text © James G. Mundie 2003 - 2018