First off, a confession: I have circus blood, but I've never been to the circus.
Yes, suckers (oops, I mean readers), it's true. Through the branches on my father's side of the family tree, I'm distantly related to the Barnums of Barnum & Bailey fame. Yet, as a child, I was never taken to the circus, so I'm a neophyte when it comes to Big Top thrills and chills.
I approached the Chazen Museum of Art's new circus-related exhibitions with a touch of hesitation. Could a non-circus-goer appreciate "Ringmaster: Judy Onofrio and the Art of the Circus" and "Harry A. Atwell, Circus Photographer"? While I have some mixed reactions to Onofrio's work, the answer is yes.
These concurrent exhibitions are joined by vintage circus artifacts from Baraboo's Circus World Museum. It's an immersion in the rich visual culture of the American circus in a way that should please kids and adults, circus fans and Big Top newbies.
Judy Onofrio, a contemporary artist based in Rochester, Minn., has drawn upon the world of the circus in her work for years. She uses flamboyant performers, trained animals and circus wagons as the visual foundation for her large-scale, mixed-media pieces. Onofrio favors vivid colors and a mix of wood, fiberglass, ceramic shards, found objects and other materials. Her work strives to be as exuberant and larger-than-life as the circus itself.
Frequently, Onofrio's work succeeds at this goal. While it may strive a little too hard to be Fun with a capital F, it's certainly entertaining, and close viewing reveals Onofrio's craftsmanship and attention to detail. For example, if you look carefully at "Zelda the Beautiful Snake Charmer," a wall-mounted sculpture, you'll notice symbols of fortune and danger embedded into Zelda's bodysuit: little dice, daggers, horseshoes and the like. The snakes entwining themselves around her body have wonderful details like iridescent beads coating their tongues.
Onofrio's work not only plays with the visual culture of the circus, it draws on folk and outsider art traditions. The artist is a fan of roadside grottoes and other outsider-art environments, of which Wisconsin has many (like the Dickeyville Grotto and Concrete Park).
While Onofrio's work is a colorful, contemporary take on the circus, viewers can explore its historical side in a smaller show of black-and-white photographs. Taken by Chicago-based photographer Harry A. Atwell (1879-1957), the photos document the heyday of the tented circuses that crisscrossed the country by train.
Atwell's work is a fascinating time capsule. He's got a feel not only for clowns, aerialists and other performers, but also for the average Americans who spent their hard-earned cash on a day at the circus.
Some of the female performers, in particular, look spectacularly free. Take "Queen of the Air" Lillian Leitzel. She poses in 1928 while ascending a rope, looking like a silent film ingénue who has taken to the air. Atwell's composition makes the most of it - we see virtually nothing but Lillian against a huge expanse of sky. Of course, such daring often came at a price; Leitzel died just three years later during a performance.
Atwell's photos also touch on aspects of circuses past that we as modern viewers are likely to be uncomfortable with, such as the display of people from other cultures as freakish curiosities. One photo shows us so-called Ubangi women from the French Congo next to white ballet girls. The African women have large metal discs embedded in their upper and lower lips. While the wall label explains this as "exhibiting contrasting ideals of feminine beauty," it's unlikely that a mass audience in 1930 would have looked at it this way. Just consider what the women are wearing. While the white women are in lovely little dresses with beading and embroidery, the black women are in simple frocks of rough-looking cotton, with one dress held together by a safety pin.
Fortunately, the public has a chance to study these records of the popular culture of decades past. Over 5,000 of Atwell's negatives are preserved at Circus World.
Rounding out a trip to the circus, Chazen-style, are artifacts ranging from huge canvas midway banners to smaller posters to parts of vintage wagons. Don't miss the 1898 poster promising "Living & Breathing Headless Human Bodies, Talking Human Heads, Revolving Sprites, Beautiful Mermaids, Gruesome Gnomes & Curious Flying People, Created by Roltair, The Magician." Above all, the art of the circus is an art of suspended reality and imagination, and that's hard to resist.