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Traveling circus 

Onofrio transforms found objects.

click to enlarge 'MERMAID ON A SOFA': At the Arts Center.
  • 'MERMAID ON A SOFA': At the Arts Center.
It may feel frivolous to go to an art exhibit with a circus theme as the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina takes hold in our lives. But it was her own brush with death that inspired Minnesota artist Judy Onofrio to create the installation, “Judy Onofrio: Come One, Come All” now on exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center, and its humor and wry archetype offers its own form of relief. Onofrio transforms thousands of cast-off materials into something else. Shells sliced in half become bird feathers, cowrie shells stand for female sexuality. It’s a new way of looking at the world. Onofrio, who describes herself as a self-taught artist, is not random in the way she uses objects to encrust her basswood-carved sculptures of people, birds, monkeys and whatnot. Onofrio is in total control, putting teapots, shells, marbles, buttons, typewriter balls, bathroom tiles, shards of mirror, safety pins, ad infinitum, to work in service of the whole, rather than allowing them to inspire or to grab our attention individually. They are visible molecules. The effect is dizzying — especially so, since the work, 33 standing and wall sculptures, fill the entire Wolfe gallery. Because the gallery lights have been focused on the sculpture to bounce off the shiny ceramic and mirrored shards, when you stand in front of “Mermaid on a Sofa,” it’s like being in an underwater disco, surrounded by points of light. The lovely mermaid sprawls on a sofa holding a ruby red telephone in her hand. Birds perch on her tail, fish jump from her hat. It is a piece of pure whimsy. Other pieces, pointillism in three dimensions, follow: a fortune teller in a glass case standing eight feet off the ground, tended by four smaller fortune tellers on a base constructed of shells, flattened silver creamers and teapots and trays, thimbles, dice. A magician who’s trapped a woman in a glass tube but is losing his rabbit. A seal jumping backward through a hoop, a genie whose lantern issues smoke by means of wire. A 10-foot-long, 14-foot-high construction in which three acrobats are surrounded by mosaic monkeys holding meat-eating plants. The symbolism of many of the elements are obvious — the cowrie shells combined with female figures, the male forms with bananas — but some must be translated by Onofrio herself (monkeys equal companions, elephants sensuality and men, snakes the unknown). “Madame Twisto,” an Eve-like woman rising from a body that is twisted from the waist down Bernini-ish. It could be read as a comment on religion and women, but Onofrio, she explains in text accompanying the show, calls Twisto “a portrait of my own physical vulnerability,” and the show’s circus theme a metaphor for her healing from a near fatal accident in 2002. The circus is what you bring to it. It runs through Oct. 9. Rivermarket Artspace will donate a percentage of sales to Red Cross relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina when 2nd Friday Art Night gets moving at 5 p.m. Sept. 9 in the River Market district and downtown. Artspace and the Historic Arkansas Museum will also take up Red Cross donations and the Cox Creative Center will take donations for America’s Second Harvest, a hunger organization. Art featured on this month’s gallery tour includes the paintings of Bill Lewis at the Cox Creative Center; paintings by Larry Hampton in an exhibit titled “My Lineage” at Hearne Fine Art; quilts and lanterns (“Through the Needle’s Eye: Quilts from the Permanent Collection” and “Lighting the Way”) at the HAM, where there will also be a quilting demonstration and music by Brian Driscoll; paintings by Terry Bean and photographs by Eric Freeman at Oval Gallery; and the work of Steve Griffith at Amy Howard Richmond Fine Art. Free trolley service between the galleries will be available. The event runs until 8 p.m. There’s more art across the river Sept. 9 when galleries on Main Street will stay open from 5 to 9 p.m. for the monthly Argenta Art Walk. Galleries include Galaxy Art Space, 304 Main, AM Architecture Space, 401 Main; Pennington Studios, 419 Main; and Arkansas Art Gallery, 500 Main.
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