Saturday, April 1st, 2006

Tom Otterness in Beverly Hills

Beverly Hills City Hall
450 N. Crescent Dr.
Beverly Hills, Ca.  90210
(310) 550-4796

November 15, 2005 – April 30, 2006

Tom Otterness, Big, Big Penny, 1993. Bronze, edition of 3, 71-¼ x 65 x 13 inches. Courtesy the Artist
Tom Otterness, Big, Big Penny, 1993. Bronze, edition of 3, 71-¼ x 65 x 13 inches. Courtesy the Artist

Tom Otterness apparently heard that people like money in Beverly Hills. Indeed, his eight sculptures on display on the west lawn of Beverly Hills City Hall tell a story about entrepreneurship, American justice, and money.

Otterness makes celebratory, but “gently” critical visual statements, whose subversiveness lies in their uncanny references to 1950’s figurative cartoons and intricate narratives about family structures. Otterness’ populism makes his work palatable to a wide range of on-lookers. Though there is no “Goofy” or “Daffy” or “Minnie Mouse” to be found on the lawn, the works are as goofy, daffy, and mini (the smallest figures are three inches high) as their Disney counterparts. Indeed, seeing Otterness’ work in Los Angeles — the same geography that inspired the makers of Disney characters and animation — lends a special nostalgic hue to these glimmering, if not weathered, ocular treasures.

Formally, the work harmonizes with the trees and Mission-style architecture of City Hall. The work entertains us as much as it inspires contemplation.  Pieces are spread out spaciously on both flanks of the lawn, are centered on the cement path leading to the front entrance of City Hall, and run alongside Santa Monica Blvd and Crescent Drive.  The work can be accessed easily by walkers or drivers; many of the pieces reach 25’ high, and some are almost as wide.  Of course the best way to take in this outdoor exhibit is slowly, and the placard map (such as this one is stationed appropriately slightly off-center.  The work is not abstract. Each Otterness piece seems to smile, both on the inside (conceptually) and on the outside (pictorally), with the exception of those figures whose faces have been covered with money bags, such as King and Queen (1997). And while the Tree of Knowledge (1997), stationed directly below the front cement stairs leading into City Hall, does provide a harsh critique (one figure holds a dagger), it seems that the dancing glee of Free Money (2001) really describes Otterness’ overall sentiment.

Otterness’ sculptures provide sartorial cues: aristocrats wear top hats, vested suits, long gowns, and beaded necklaces, for example.  Yet the subject of money, especially since Warhol’s silkscreens of money, holds a peculiar place in American art, even sculpture.  The bulbous money bags (which double as heads, and shadow the King and Queen with an uncanny image of harm) lend themselves perfectly to the material used.  It seems that any ironic critique of capitalism suggested by these groupings is outweighed by the jolly rotundity and pleasant plumpness of the figures.

Tom Otterness, Free Money, 2001. Bronze, edition of 3, 107-1/2 x 69-1/2 x 84 inches. Courtesy the Artist
Tom Otterness, Free Money, 2001. Bronze, edition of 3, 107-1/2 x 69-1/2 x 84 inches. Courtesy the Artist

In light of that, what I found most delightful about Otterness’ work is the commentary about labor in each piece.  The labor of the artist is clearly part of the celebration: each piece demonstrates mastery over the process, so much so that the green patina from its stay in LA poses no threat to the success of the work.  Likewise, Otterness’ Big Big Penny seems to replicate at 71 inches high (about 7’) the same financial statement that the US penny does in a ½ diameter.  His attention to the shallow depths and fine surface details, do not offset the fine balancing of this circular form.

But there is an even more interesting phenomena going on in Otterness’ installation with regards to gender, and possibly sexuality.  For who is driving the Large Covered Wagon but a pipe-smoking woman and her friendly, clothed ox?  What are the children in the back of the wagon doing but fighting in the rear orifice of the covered wagon, in thick fluid motions made of childhood trauma?  These details in the narratives of Tom Otterness’ sculpture tell the viewer a lot about the development of industry and greed, more than the panoramic eye can grasp.  Indeed, behind Big Big Penny one finds two small figures, men kissing.  And true to the form, the working class men are symbolized by hard-hats and given only the shirts on their backs, no pantaloons, exposing the remaining anatomy without fanfare.  Present in the smallest of details, there is subtle sensuality in Otterness work that complicates the normative family structures implied by the cartoon themes.

Tania Hammidi is a graduate student of Dance History and Theory at the University of California, Riverside. She works on contemporary visual art and movement, with particular attention to sculpture and language.