Coney Island, often considered one of the lasting remnants of “Old New York,” is a seaside amusement park celebrated for its playful, homespun, dilapidated, and almost spooky charm. After World War II, the park’s popularity declined and it suffered from years of neglect. Over time “outsiders” flocked to the park to celebrate otherness and differences in traditions such as Side Show by the Seashore Freak Show, Shoot the Freak, and the Mermaid Parade, one of the country’s largest art parades.
This iconic summer destination left a lasting impression on Garrol Gayden, an artist at LAND Gallery, a studio for adults with developmental disabilities in Brooklyn, New York. The first time we met, Gayden greeted me with a smile and informed me that as a child he visited Coney Island with his mother but was “too afraid to ride Spook-a-Rama,” which at the time was heralded as the longest “spook ride” in history. He then mentioned that he “saw Laurel and Hardy up there,” “one was fat and one was skinny” and “the fat one had his arms raised.” He ended the conversation with “my mother told me not to be scared” and that “I should learn to hold my own hand.”
Spook-a-Rama was built by Fred Garms in 1955 and was recently renovated by Scarefactory Inc. Today, the exterior of the ride features a sculpture of Skeleton Crusoe, but it once lured riders with a large and cartoonish cyclops surrounded by an ever-changing cast of characters.
Since then, when I’ve asked Gayden if he ever took a ride on Spook-a-Rama, he sometimes answers yes and sometimes no. Through working with Gayden, I’ve come to realize that this poignant childhood memory has had a lasting effect on him. The fixation reverberates over and over, with little deviation, and informs almost every piece of artwork he creates.
Attending LAND Gallery full time since 2005, Gayden ritualistically relives his fated childhood trip to Coney Island through his art. His daily musings grapple with his unwavering fear of Spook-a-Rama, and a deep nostalgia for the undeniable charm of Coney Island. This duality is both playfully captivating and slightly unsettling.
Working with a variety of media, most commonly pen, pencil, and crayon on paper, Gayden’s Spook-a-Rama drawings are composed of a dense layering of text interspersed with figurative drawing. With a heavy, deliberate stroke, Gayden furiously jots down details of the old Spook-a-Rama and of Coney Island. With a worn, folded photograph of the original ride on his desk, Gayden spells out the title of his favorite ride in block letters, alongside other attractions such as the Wonder Wheel, Astroland, Luna Park, and the Mite Mouse Coaster. In bright, neon colors he continuously scribbles Laurel and Hardy’s names as well as their characteristics such as “big, tall, short, little, chubby, fat, blue suit, grey suit.” He lists food offered at the park: Nathan’s hot dogs, cheddar fries, Pepsi Cola, popcorn, candy apples, ice cubes, and franks.
His sentences are written once and then covered with other words, scratched out, and erased. Exploring his thoughts about Coney Island through this text, Gayden frequently layers his words too thickly that they evolve into dark swaths of color left indecipherable and abstracted. The text is often accompanied by colorful cross hatching and scribbles, which abstract the sentences even further. The words’ looming presence remains, however, which adds a mysterious quality to the work. The scribbles even begin to convey movement, reminiscent of Coney Island’s own constant motion and frenetic energy.
Within these patches of scrawled text, Gayden intermittently weaves in his gestural drawings. Reproducing vestiges of the old Coney Island, Gayden exhibits nostalgia for the way the amusement park once was. He ritualistically memorializes the original Spook-a-Rama Cyclops looming in the background, his arms awkwardly raised. The long gone sculptures of Laurel and Hardy are almost always in the composition, sometimes left uncolored with rough outlines of their circular glasses, mustaches, and top hats. The pages are dotted with drawings of traditional concession snacks such as popcorn in striped red and white containers, Nathan’s hot dogs, and sodas. The rolling, electric curves of the historic wooden roller coaster The Cyclone (built in 1927) curve in and out of the space. The Wonder Wheel, Astroland, and the Astrotower also make appearances.
Gayden’s work occasionally turns more self-referential, with lines such as “Happy Birthday Garrol” or “By Garrol” appearing throughout. Names of family members and his peers at LAND Gallery enter the landscape, as well as Brooklyn street names, exact addresses, and names of Brooklyn primary schools. Names of his favorite television shows, My Wife and Kids and Living Single are noted, as is Soupy Sales, his favorite television personality from Lunch with Soupy Sales, whose career infamously ended when he asked his viewers to go into their parents’ bedroom, take money from their wallets, and send it to him. Gayden’s personal goals are also jotted down, such as “adult skills,” “show it to her, your mother” and “but love her.” In some cases, the words appear to be completely random and may reference segments of conversations he has overheard such as “bathroom,” “volkswagen,” “cologne,” or “library.”
When I look closely at Gayden’s works, I can’t help but wonder if he really did refuse to go on the Spook-a-Rama ride as a child or whether he “learned to hold his own hand” and ventured inside. Either way, I believe he has confronted his fears through this perseverance in his drawings. His cyclops, Wonder Wheels, and Laurel and Hardys take form over and over and convey the rollercoaster ride he goes on every day.
Gayden’s complicated and conflicting compositions are celebrated by many and are part of numerous private collections. His work has been featured in New York City’s Outsider Art Fairs in 2011, 2012, and 2013. In 2012 his work was showcased in the Masters of Puppets exhibition at the Cullman Education Building at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A year later, in 2013, Gayden exhibited in CUTLOG Art Fair in New York City as well as at the Gallery at Ace Hotel New York in LAND Lovers by LAND. His work returned to MoMA in 2015, for the group show Televisionary, which worked in partnership with the museum’s access department. Over the last ten years, he has exhibited work in a variety of LAND Gallery’s public exhibitions.