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The Amazing Johnny Eck

MICA’s Johnny Eck exhibition reveals whole man

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A 1925 watercolor self-portrait by Johnny Eck

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Johnny Eck with his twin brother at the Canadian Exposition in 1927

When the legendarily pervy cartoonist R. Crumb thinks your drawings are weird, man, they’re weird. In a short video running on a loop in the back room—which explicitly prohibits minors—of The Amazing Johnny Eck, MICA’s excellent exhibit, Crumb repeatedly uses the word “weird” to describe the images found in a freezer in Eck’s basement. One image called “Female ‘Bojopus’ (Moon Creature)” depicts a creature with a vagina for a mouth and penises for eyes rolling on wheels across a lunar landscape. There are perhaps a dozen like this which picture some alien form of sexuality from another planet or time. Another, labeled “Musician from ancient village of Zaludio playing cocka phone at local ampitheatre [sic],” shows a woman fellating a large, detached penis which emits musical notes. A note points us to “lion shit from previous show.” And yet another image shows a creature with a breast for a head, penises as breasts, a woman’s face as a penis head, “hot and cold running duche-washers [sic]” as hands, and “built in duel [sic] exhaust pipes” shooting out its ass. Oh yeah, and on one leg there’s a roll of toilet paper. “That’s really weird,” Crumb says. “Am I a freak? I’m no Johnny Eck. There are freaks and then there are Freaks.”

Of course Johnny Eck, screen painter, sideshow performer, actor, photographer, model maker, magician, gymnast (he often walked about on his hands), and race car driver, is best known outside of his native Baltimore for being featured in the 1932 Tod Browning film called Freaks. Eck, born Eckhardt, was a freak because he was born as a “half-man.” As the wall plaque in the exhibition puts it, Eck, “though healthy[,] was born with no lower half. His body stopped just below the ribs.” It is this fact, coupled with the strangely juvenile drawings, which causes Crumb to remark upon “the mystery of Johnny Eck’s sexual life and sexual parts.” The images in the back room of the exhibition seem to indicate a lack of experience, if not a lack of interest. “I wonder if he ever had a sexual encounter,” Crumb speculates on camera. “He must have had some kind of sex drive.”

There has been speculation that Eck shared the images with his twin brother—who did have legs—with whom he lived all his life. But whatever the purpose of these humorous images, and whatever the state of Eck’s sex drive, he was certainly filled with a lust for life, as the exhibit makes clear.

Eck was born in 1911 on North Milton Avenue in East Baltimore, and he never grew taller than 18 inches. Despite his lack of a lower half, Eck was otherwise healthy. In 1923, Eck and his brother went to see a performance by sideshow maestro John McAslan, who noticed Eck and asked if he wanted to work with him. Eck and his brother began to travel with McAslan, performing in sideshows until Eck was noticed by a casting agent in 1931. Not only did he play in Freaks, in which he leads a mob of freaks in the climactic scene, but he also played in the first of the Tarzan films. Later in the ’30s, Eck and his brother returned to the sideshow circuit (his brother was a “plant” in the audience) until the world of carnivals and sideshows began to dry up. They returned to Baltimore for good to practice painting, photography, and a variety of other arts.

Both of the Eckhardt brothers had worked in the store of William Oktavec, the master and, some say, inventor of screen-painting (the show runs adjacent to and concurrently with Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore and Beyond), from whom Eck learned the art. The show features several of Eck’s screens, including an Eastern Orthodox-influenced one of Jesus with a red sash over his shoulder, and one of Fells Point with a tugboat and rowhouses of various shades of brick. But it is the water and the sky in this painting that truly show Eck’s mastery of the art form. The reflections off the muddy-green water, rippling in the wake of the boat, show a true master’s hand, and the various blues of the sky give the painting far more depth than most screen paintings ever acquire. Eck shows his mastery of painting water and sky in other paintings—on paper—of ships. And the works on paper show that he could also paint realistic women and not just genital monsters from Venus.

The show is filled out with Eckiania—photographs, the gloves he wore for walking around, items of clothing, hand-carved Punch and Judy puppets, posters for movies and sideshow performances, and even a functioning small-scale train (he dreamed of being a train engineer) which reminds one of the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Too Loud a Solitude, in which an old conductor, upon retiring, wants only to ride around on such a train in his backyard. There is an accompanying video which shows another artist riding around a yard in Eck’s train and catching it on fire.

Elaine Eff (full disclosure: a friend of this writer), who curated the screen-painting show, interviewed Eck late in his life for her documentary The Screen Painters. She photographed him with his living room mantel, which, fitted with various skulls and doll heads, looks like a Joseph Cornell box mixed with a medieval memento mori. Two years later, Eck died beneath the same mantel, in the house he had been born in 79 years earlier.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the photographs of Eck is the stern dignity of his face. In one, he holds a saxophone and looks out at the camera with dark, clear eyes challenging the viewer to think of him as less than a whole man or a “freak.” In fact, the entire show, including the bizarre, erotic drawings, serves to present Eck the “half-man” as a whole man with an extraordinarily rich life.

The Amazing Johnny Eck is on display at the Decker Gallery in MICA’s Fox building through March 16.

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