Bring in the Clowns: The Nefarious Paintings of John Wayne Gacy

Posted on February 18, 2014


serial killer, allthingscrimeblog, gacy, clowns

What sort of monster wears a clown suit and keeps the bodies of teenage boys in the crawl space of his home? Throughout history, humans have grappled with the question of what drives a person to acts of unspeakable evil. We want to know, because despite their evil acts, serial killers hide amongst us in plain sight. No matter the number of victims, or their sinister game, the killers hold jobs, shop for groceries, hang out at local pubs or entertain our children, sometimes as a clown.

John Wayne Gacy was married, managed three Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Iowa, and was the vice-president of the United States Junior Chamber, a civic organization that focused on community service and developing business skills. He later owned a construction company, hosted neighbourhood parties, and was a member of the “Jolly Joker” clown club, where he would dress up as a clown, perform at local charity events, and voluntarily visit sick kids at the local hospital.

To the horror of those around him, this “upstanding citizen” raped and murdered thirty-three teenage boys and young men within a span of six years, burying twenty-six of them in the crawl space of his home right under his neighbours’ noses. For most of his Summerdale neighbours, the mere mention of his name arouses conflicting emotions:

“What he did was carefully, thoroughly planned, John Gacy is Satan.”

“He slept for six years in that house with all those people buried there? That’s not normal. That’s insane.” 

An investigation culminated in Gacy’s capture in 1978, conviction and execution in 1994. After his capture, he became the “Killer Clown,” a nifty moniker that seemed to exemplify the unexpected revelation that he was a serial killer. Strangely, Gacy seemed to revel in his clown persona. Part of the serial killer’s method is façade, the ability to live an apparently normal life between, and in spite of, his accumulating murderous episodes. Gacy’s clown persona brought an almost theatrical element to his brutal acts – an image that he continued to exploit while in prison.

In May 2011, the Arts Factory opened an exhibition with 75 Gacy works to sell for between $2,000 and $12,000 apiece. The proceeds from the exhibit, “according to the wishes of the executor of Gacy’s art portfolio,” were to go to “the community at large, including the Contemporary Arts Center, 18b Arts District and the National Center for Victims of Crime.” However, as CNN reported at the time, the National Center for Victims of Crime refused any of the proceeds, sending a cease-and-desist letter to the gallery owner, Westly Myles.

Curse of the Clown Artist

During his 14-years on death row, Gacy took up oil painting using his favorite pet subject: himself, as Pogo the Clown. He said he used his clown act as an alter ego, saying once quite sardonically that, “A clown can get away with murder.” Particularly terrifying is that Gacy, a man already convicted of sexual assault, gained access to children in his guise as an innocuous clown. This highly publicized killer fueled America’s already growing fears of “stranger danger” and sexual predation on children, and made clowns a real object of fear and suspicion.

john wayne gacy, killer art, serial, allthingscrimeblogThe clown’s art is rather terrifying and full of anxiety and apprehension; their suicidal feats, monstrous gestures and frenzied mimicry remind us of the stage of a lunatic asylum. Clowns are unsettling—and a great source for drama. In America, the heyday of clowns corresponds with the television age with child entertainers like Howdy Doody’s silent partner, Clarabell the Clown, and Bozo the Clown.

The public outcry against Gacy’s art is tantamount to a belief that his paintings are evil talismans. But are they? Should art not be valued for its aesthetic appeal and contribution to the cultural landscape rather than on the morality of its creator? Does the rule “once a serial killer, always a serial killer” mean that Gacy’s paintings are not legitimate cultural objects worthy of study or collecting? The great painter, Caravaggio, was a murderer; Picasso was a wife beater; Francis Bacon was a thief and a prostitute; and the filmmaker, Roman Polanski, possibly a hebephile.

However, the inherent evil and creepiness of Gacy’s art cannot be ignored. In 2001, singer Nikki Stone’s penchant for collecting ‘murderabilia’ took a morbid turn after purchasing “Pogo the Clown” for $3,000 from Arthur Rosenblatt. Afterwards, his beloved dog died and his mother found out she had cancer. Were these tragic events just a coincidence? Maybe, but when a friend stored the painting at his house, the friend’s neighbour suddenly died in a car crash. A second friend who then agreed to keep the painting attempted suicide. Oddly, actor Johnny Depp also invested in a Gacy clown painting, and reportedly became so freaked out that he developed a pathological fear of clowns and unloaded the artwork.

Profiling ‘Pogo the Clown’

Part of the appeal (or repulsion) of Gacy’s clowns are their ghoulishness — people have always been intrigued by violence and death. Just consider the popularity of shows like Criminal Minds, Dexter, The Following and Hannibal. Part of this fascination with “criminal artwork” also stems from a belief that it will help us better understand the twisted mind of a serial killer. Everyone likes to play amateur psychologist — so, what can we glean from Ramirez’ freaky devil faces or Gacy’s sinister clowns? Sociopaths or narcissists have a need for attention. They are also manipulative, and in the case of Gacy, duplicitous as hell.

Gacy’s clown portraits are primitive and creepy. His paintings are not masterpieces by any stretch, but do fit within the rubric of “Outsider Art.” I find his clown faces chilling to the bone, eerily disarming and freakishly charming. Possibly my reaction is pure fantasy and projection. The interpretation of art can be subjective, yet most paintings can offer clues that help us to piece together a story, and possibly, a profile.

In “Hi Ho with Clown,” we see a flat and ghostly rendition of Pogo the Clown surrounded by the Seven Dwarfs. In contrast to their sculptural and animated faces, Gacy’s face is a flattened caricature — void of dimension or emotion, and accented with a black hole that enters his head and escapes into the background of a dark forest. Was it merely a Freudian slip to adorn himself in a frilly white suit laced with red? Or did he inhabit the role of Snow White in an attempt to reconcile a love/hate relationship with his sexuality? It is also peculiar that in many of Gacy’s clown paintings, you can see his hand seemingly severed from the rest of his body. Is this just the awkward skills of a naïve painter or is it a sign of his severe disassociation and a lack of remorse for assaulting and killing victims with his monstrous acts?

The idea that serial killer art can infect people with its evil miasma is an absurdity that may still hold a grain of truth. Although a painting cannot murder, it can have a profound effect on our psyches. A work of art is not a free or perverse agent acting in the world. It’s what we project onto an artwork that gives it meaning or power. Although Gacy’s canvases may be soaked in the blood of his victims (at least figuratively), should we really prohibit the exhibiting or selling of his art?

Burning of the Clowns

Some people have actually bought Gacy’s paintings specifically to destroy them. A bonfire in Naperville, Illinois in June 1994 was attended by 300 people, including family members of nine victims who watched 25 of his paintings burn to ash. While it can be seen as disturbing that people have paid $200,000 for a Gacy painting, the reasons one might desire to own his art are multifaceted. The motivation might be greed.  For others it might be an aesthetic appeal or the morbid allure of owning a painting made by the “bloody” hands of an “iconic” killer clown. It might also be for the purposes of using the images to study the psychological profile of a serial killer. Are some of the reasons legitimate, and others not?

Haunted by Gacy’s own horrendous acts, his nefarious clowns have seeped into our collective conscience. It is difficult to say whether Gacy is the cause of clown phobias or that his sinister caricatures influenced the popularity of scary clowns like It, Krusty the Clown or Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker. What clown phobias really come down to is fear of the person under the make-up – and a savage but “seemingly caring” serial killer dressed up as a clown epitomizes that fear.

While I won’t argue that concerns about victims’ feelings are irrelevant to the marketing of Gacy’s art, I do think the calls for censorship are misguided. The Gacy clown painting controversy highlights the difference between the idea of art as a sacred object or art as an evil talisman. Yet, art is inevitably a window into the human soul or psyche. Is it possible that instead of evil lurking in the paintings of John Wayne Gacy, that our morbid fascination is merely a function of our human compulsion to project fantasies and fears onto these inanimate yet curiously evocative objects?

I would love to read your comments — please write your thoughts in the box below.  Thank you!