The Mothers of Invention Exhibition Series

(The following is excerpted from the exhibition catalog for See Acts of Audacious Daring: The Circus World of Judy Onofrio, opening September 25. Copies of the catalog are available at the Plains Art Museum store.  – ed.)

With See Acts of Audacious Daring! The Circus World of Judy Onofrio, Plains Art Museum initiates the ongoing exhibition series Mothers of Invention.

Judy Onofrio, 'Flip Flop'

This series will periodically present solo exhibitions of important artists from our region who belong to a generation of women who contributed to opening up the art world since the 1970s. These women came of age artistically in the 1960s and 1970s and now are in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties. They are part of a national and international movement of women who insisted on being taken seriously as artists and courageously endeavored to break into what had been predominantly male terrain. They made art, formed collectives, started galleries, taught at art schools, and gave each other critical and moral support to dismantle the barriers that had existed against women in the visual arts. They changed the art world profoundly, altering ideas about the canon of art history and the meaning of terms such as “masterpiece,” “artist,” “gaze,” and “body,” as well as expanding what could be considered acceptable art materials, subjects, imagery, and boundaries between art forms. Their impact has spread throughout art and culture and is not confined to their own or other women’s work. Indeed, this generation deserves the accolade Mothers of Invention.

Many are, in fact, mothers, a position formerly perceived as an impediment to a woman’s potential as a creative artist. Motherhood was conventional and pulled back toward traditional expectations for females; art was considered a male domain, where creative minds and spirits were unbound by domestic responsibilities or the constraints of child rearing. While most artists featured in Mothers of Invention are mothers (as is our first artist in the series, Judy Onofrio), maternity is not necessarily the subject of their art, even though it is a significant element of their lives.

Onofrio and others were interested in inventing their lives in ways that contradicted societal expectations. Amid the constrictions of the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud had declared that “biology is destiny”: women created babies while men created art and culture. Much about Freud’s ideas and research has since been discredited or called into question.

Mothers of Invention proves that women can be mothers and artists, nurturing and creative; these terms are not mutually exclusive. Our series points primarily to the fact that these artists have been influential on all of us–as viewers, as art lovers, as artists of all genres and genders. They have given birth, in other words, to the expanded art world that we live in today and sometimes take for granted.

Sideshow Artist

Judy Onofrio, 'Sideshow Artist'

Plains Art Museum is proud to recognize this generation of women artists at an advanced stage of their careers. Our goal is to acquaint new audiences with their work and to remind those who may have seen their earlier art that they are still active, still vital, still experimenting. Not conceived as retrospectives of an artist’s work, the exhibitions in Mothers of Invention will be singularly shaped by the approach of the curator of each project, who will collaborate closely with the artist. These women and their art deserve continuing critical and popular attention and ongoing visibility, which solo exhibitions and catalogue publications can ensure. The Mothers of Invention series thus strives to prevent the erasure of these women from the art historical record, something that has happened repeatedly over the centuries and requires diligent art historians to recover, as we have appreciated recently with rediscovered artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi from seventeenth-century Italy, expanded research on the nineteenth-century American Mary Cassatt, and, closer to home, new documentation on twentieth-century Minnesota artists Wanda Gág and Clara Mairs.


It is fitting to launch Mothers of Invention with the big, bold work of Judy Onofrio, specifically her sculptures that explore the enthusiasm and metaphorical potential of circus acrobats, magicians, and animal trainers.

Onofrio is an iconoclast, breaking rules of the art world right and left, championing outsiders and claiming territory for self-education, women’s expressions, and the value of folk art and common objects. Based in Rochester, Minnesota, and now in her early seventies, Onofrio performs her own “acts of audacious daring” in her work and career. An ardent and largely self-educated student of life, material culture, and art, Onofrio has forged a dynamic career, with dozens of solo and group exhibitions and one of the highest honors for an artist based in Minnesota–the McKnight Distinguished Artist, awarded in 2005.

Judy Onofrio’s art expresses a generous spirit that reaches out to viewers. She embraces a populism of image and material that offers a good deal of pleasure and makes her work particularly enjoyable to broad audiences.

Today, her over-the-top inventive use of materials and labor-intensive methods resonate with younger artists who have discovered the rich associations of folk arts and crafts.9 At the same time that she revels in materials, Onofrio offers philosophical wisdom in physical form. Shouldn’t we all attempt acts of audacious daring, like the acrobat in the sculpture of that title? Isn’t that what life is for–living to the utmost? Who among us doesn’t feel like we have jumped through a ring of fire, or would like to pull off a magic trick, real or metaphorical? Sometimes life calls for such boldness. In Onofrio’s oeuvre, extraordinary figures stand in for all of us facing the many challenges of life. May we be brave enough to approach our own challenges with the confidence and aplomb of Onofrio’s characters.