In the pursuit of thrills, circuses have ranged from the breathtaking heights of aerial acrobats and human cannonballs to the sordid depths of overworked, abused animals and sideshow ignominy. This colorful and complex spectacle past and present is impressively curated in the work of twenty-five regional, national, and international artists in Gallery Project’s current exhibit, Circus.

Traditional circuses used cruel methods to train their animal performers. The mistreatment of elephants is the focus of two works by the respected English illustrator Sue Coe. She Packed Her Trunk and Said Goodbye to the Circus–a darkly witty woodcut depicting an elephant waving “So long!” to a whip-cracking trainer–inverts our longstanding vision of escape by running away to the circus. It also raises the question of who’s tame and who’s savage, a dichotomy sharply rendered in Toronto artist Jamiyla Lowe’s silkscreen Skipping Bear. With a muzzled bear squeezed between two sneering performers turning a jump rope, it’s a startling, powerful clash of worlds and characters, like seeing a beloved Maurice Sendak character escorted through the streets of Gotham City.

At its laziest, the circus peddles variation, mutation, and disfigurement in the forms of pickled oddities and “freaks,” a theme seared into the works of Colorado multimedia artist Pamela Joseph. Her engrossing wall installation The Hundred Headless Women includes many wooden kitchen cutting boards burned with images of disembodied female heads and headless bodies, gals being sawed in half, and lady-animal hybrids. Sliced and diced and prepared for our consumption, these women are, paradoxically enough, smiling and defenseless, a quietly unsettling feature that also alludes to conditions of violence, oppression, and helplessness. More sideshow performers are on view in a pair of digital photo montages by Bowling Green State University art professor Lou Krueger, whose stomach-twisting curiosities win my award for Most Bizarre and Disturbing. Squirrel Man and Girl Alive feature gold-skinned, stitched-together subjects whose direct gaze confronts us and demands that we see past their mutilations.

This upending of the staid, commonplace world finds its most gratifying expression in the fantastic feats of circus performers. Highly trained, committed to their craft, they get their due share of appreciation in Madison Heights photographer Spilt Sugar’s vivid, dynamic photographs of several Detroit circus performers, as well as Michigan artist Seder Burns’ multifaceted 3-D photo sculpture Titano the Strongman.

Still not astonished? Step right up and see Netherlands sculptor Sylvia B.’s compelling Noir de Nocturne, a photo of a monkey pulling a rabbit out of a hat! Be amazed by artist, musician, and filmmaker C. Ryder Cooley’s eerie and enchanting Animalia: Stories of Collapse, Calamity and Departure, both a handmade artist’s book and an animated film about a girl’s transformation into a deer creature. That, and more than a dozen other works sure to bewilder and delight.

The exhibit runs through May 5.