The Junk Lady

“I consider myself extremely lucky,” artist Judy Onofrio has said. “Every day, I have the opportunity to construct a world of memory, humor, and stories through my work in the studio. Best of all, I live in that world and invite others in.”

It is in this spirit of openness that the 2005 McKnight Distinguished Artist recently ushered an entire busload of adult learners into her home and studio and allowed them to roam her three-acre backyard hillside garden, populated by plastic swans and sculptures like the odalisk made of Jell-O molds. Onofrio is perhaps best recognized by Twin Citizens who remember her 1993 exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, titled Judyland, which featured huge conglomerate pieces made of Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottles. Before our private tour, those of us who’d signed up for the University of Minnesota Curiosity Camp course “Come One, Come All to Judyland” had already been treated to a morning lecture on the artist’s work, as well as a boxed lunch on the bus en route to Onofrio’s solo exhibit Come One, Come All at the Rochester Arts Center.

In her studio, two assistants were busy building the foundations for new pieces. Ryan worked in metal, and Jeremy, sitting at a large table littered with wooden parts, explained, “My task for today was to make a whole bunch of birds.” Those birds, which would be covered in an epoxy, smoothed, and painted until they looked like delicate porcelain creatures, represent a new direction in Onofrio’s work, an artist taking flight. Despite having a studio stacked high with storage boxes labeled “hummingbirds,” “lamp parts,” “bottle caps,” “door knobs,” “swans,” “animals and parts,” “fish,” “lids,” “dogs,” “tile,” “tiny tile,” “castors,” and the less-specific “political,” Onofrio is relying less on the found objects that are her trademark. Though she’s long had a penchant for bringing home buckets of garage sale junk, she admitted that she recently has been casting off entire warehouses of stored stuff. “Most of the found objects are pretty meaningless to me now,” Onofrio said.

Onofrio began working in clay in the 60s, then moved on to large, soft textile works with an overt, overstuffed sensuality (think three-dimensional O’Keeffe paintings, think sea cucumbers). For a time she was creating large-scale wooden structures that, once finished, were set ablaze. (Onofrio confesses to being something of a pyromaniac.) It was after back surgery limited her mobility that she turned to her trademark assemblage, beginning with small brooches made from found objects—buttons and broken cups—and moving on to much larger pieces inspired by such diverse projects as Gaudi’s spiraling masterpieces, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa.

Onofrio approaches her work with that same sort of religious fervor and devotion. Her pieces, noted University of Minnesota Professor Robert Silberman, are “a testament to the decorative impulse,” but also are notable for the attention Onofrio pays to “both detail and coherence,” achieving in their chaos an incredible balance of color and form.

The pieces in Come One, Come All were inspired by Onofrio’s memories of and dreams about the circus. The serene, ceramic-looking faces of women and monkeys, with their ruby lips and high cheekbones, call to mind Jeff Koons, but without the insincerity. Onofrio’s work is sensual, open, playful. And while recent pieces rely much more on movement, balance, and created forms—monkeys, elephants, acrobats, a crab, birds—closer inspection reveals that same attention to surface decoration, in cut shells and beads, along with the occasional cup handle, juice squeezer, or squirrel figurine found at a flea market.

In the studio, demonstrating how she’s been experimenting with the positioning of objects in a new sculpture, Onofrio commented, “It’s like constant change and revision, playing with how the object interacts with the figure … I [still] have a collage aesthetic. I’m always moving things around and looking at the relationship between objects.” Onofrio spends hours in her studio fiddling around until she finds the right balance. “It’s like, you make this precious thing, and does it work? And you have a big band saw up there if it doesn’t.”

Perhaps Onofrio’s transition to creating her own forms, instead of relying on found pieces, represents a kind of confidence in her own internal narrative and impulses. In a recent piece, Delicate Balance, for example, a woman does a one-handed balancing act, held aloft by two men, with a parrot poised on an index finger. Her new work, said Onofrio, is “about finding the content, and not having to show all my junk to everyone.”