Tom Otterness: Animal Spirits
February 23-March 26, 2011
The Directors of Marlborough Gallery are pleased to announce an exhibition of recent work by Tom Otterness opening on Wednesday, February 23 and continuing through Saturday, March 26, 2011. Tom Otterness: Animal Spirits will consist of over two dozen bronze sculptures ranging in scale from small to monumental that, in Otterness’ inimitable style, deal with themes of money, class and the individual’s role in society, and of course their eponymous animal spirits.
Often inspired by the figures of modern iconography – bulls, bears and bags of money – as well as those of classic fairytales – the Old Woman and the Shoe, the Three Little Pigs – Otterness' subjects are instantly recognizable to the viewer. We think we already know them well. This allows the artist to make statements that are serious without causing offense, or to offer what writer Alan Moore calls, “hard lessons in reassuring tones.”
Otterness’ anthropomorphized and slyly playful figures have been internationally known for many years, but following the worldwide financial crisis of the last few years his sculptures Bear Riding Bull, Old Woman and Shoe, and Bad Wolf, a mortgage note in the wolf’s pocket while he circles the three pigs, have special resonance. We are lured into an automatic, unconscious acceptance of Otterness’ cartoon-like subjects – his undeniably cute Guinea Pigs on Fire Truck, sweetly maternal Mama Pig suckling her piglets and his regal Big Cat. We cannot help but be drawn by the seductive physical qualities of the smooth bronze forms and luscious caramel patinas of his Bear on Moneybag and Cash Cow. And yet as Moore notes in his catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition,
“Because these little guys have so often appeared in toys, greeting cards, cartoons – we believe we know them. They are so familiar they seem banal. This is the camouflage of Otterness' art, its crucial cover for sneaking up on universal themes. Tom approaches the classic modernist objective through the forbidden door of kitsch.”
The result is a menagerie of complex and important works innocuously masquerading as a playful collection of friends. This is something we have come to expect from the hand of this masterful artist, but it is also something which continues to surprise.
Sculptures by Tom Otterness are in the collections of numerous museums including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; The Miyagi Museum of Art, Sendai; Beelden aan Zee Museum, The Hague; and The IVAM Centro Julio Gonzalez, Valencia. Commissioned public art projects include the United States courthouses in Minneapolis and Sacramento, an extensive installation at the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City, Life Underground in multiple areas of the MTA 14th Street A-C-E-L subway station in New York City, The Marriage of Real Estate and Money at New York City's Roosevelt Island, and Time and Money in Times Square.
In 2004 Otterness staged a series of monumental outdoor shows, beginning with the highly acclaimed Tom Otterness on Broadway, an exhibition of twenty-five bronze sculptures that spanned five miles of the famous thoroughfare in New York. This inspired similar exhibitions in Indianapolis, Beverly Hills, and Grand Rapids. Otterness was also the first contemporary artist invited to create a helium balloon, Humpty Dumpty, for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, seen by millions of television viewers worldwide.
Otterness, originally from Wichita, Kansas, has been a New York resident since the 1970s. He works from a studio in Brooklyn. An illustrated catalogue with an essay by Alan Moore will be available at the time of the exhibition.
Hard Lessons by Alan W. Moore
“We know the history of fabulation and how it remains an anthropomorphic taming, a moralizing subjection, a domestication. Always a discourse of man, on man, indeed on the animality of man, but for and as man.”
– Jacques Derrida
It was only recently that Ernst Gombrich's A Little History of the World came out in English. Published in 1936, the book was the Austrian art historian's first, and it was written for children. The tales told in it are frequently bleak, as has been our history. If Gombrich had written his history now as an allegory, then had it made into a World History Adventure Park, Tom Otterness might have been commissioned to design the place. Otterness' repertory ensemble of tiny tubby figures and humanized animals deliver hard lessons in reassuring tones.
The stories Tom uses in his work are not like the fairy tales of mysterious girl-children turning into wolves amidst gem-encrusted forests that animate some works of his former Collaborative Projects compatriot Kiki Smith. Instead, the sculptor goes to the bargain basement of children's literature, and heads straight for the 99¢ bin. There one can find Jack and Jill, the Old Woman in the Shoe, the Three Little Pigs, and any number of mournful bears shedding an embroidered tear for you. Otterness takes the trite, common and over-worked mascots of an ideally joyful uncomplicated childhood and puts them to work.
And “work” is what they do, just as we do, laboring in the real economy, according to our abilities and opportunities, to fulfill our dreams and realize our ambitions. But American dreams are hostage to older often darker forces – like destiny and fortune. The lived realities of humankind can often turn our cheer to ashes. These realities are delivered to the “little people” through the general economy and its handmaidens, politics and religion. These are the two topics to avoid in polite conversation, but their pathological eruptions can surely ruin dinner for a long while.
Tom Otterness insists upon raising these questions. Yet, like George Orwell speaking to the left in 1945 about the horrors of Stalinism, Tom often chooses the allegory of animal stories and nursery rhymes. And, as befits a major public sculptor with a broad heterogeneous audience, Otterness' address is clear, direct and utterly ambiguous.
Take the Three Little Pigs. In the stand-alone version of the figures, the two pigs who built from straw and wood stand facing the behatted pig who built in brick. As we know from Walt Disney, they are begging him to let them into his house to save them from the prowling wolf. Yet these two homeless pigs ironically recall Vera Mukhina's Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, the immense seven-story stainless steel Soviet contribution to the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Here the gendered pair do not stand for the certain victory and futurity of the workers' state. They are defeated and beseeching, their tools not held aloft but resting on the ground as they face the better builder (of the oikos). The political message here seems clear. In the larger ensemble, however, it gets more complicated. The pig builds his brick house as the canine predator circles behind it, and the straw and wood pigs look on. Oddly, the predator holds a mortgage in his pocket. Does he – (yes, he's wearing a hat) – simply stand behind the brick house, and refuse to get involved with straw or wood? However it is (i.e., the nomos), we know that money is always hungry. The work finally reflects the many ambiguities in different versions of this tale.
Now you might say, I am reading a lot into what is after all an expensive 99¢ playset!
It is a curious effect of universalized form that we are led to feel that what we are seeing is easily comprehensible. Because these little guys have so often appeared in toys, greeting cards, cartoons – we believe we know them. They are so familiar they seem banal. This is the camouflage of Otterness' art, its crucial cover for sneaking up on universal themes. Tom approaches the classic modernist objective through the forbidden door of kitsch.
Universal form was Tom's search from the beginning of his work in New York, drawing in museums of art and natural history, taking from every culture in search of a “boiled down form.” It is a classic modernist ambition, which has lain behind both abstract art, cartoons and trademarking. Not only Picasso, Brancusi, and Rivera, but also Covarrubias, Frueh, and Hirschfeld grasped at the essence of a character, a being, through a cartooning method.
And Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks – (“the shoes”). The cartoon is with Otterness, always feeding into his form, with its proportions, mobilities and swellings. But in sculpture its flatness and rapidity have been rendered tactile. His metal is made fleshly, not through verism, like Maillol's, but with the sexy formal alchemy of modernist abstraction, like Arp and Moore. The warm, nougaty bronze of Otterness' sculptures is supremely sensual. Even if only subliminally, these inflated forms invoke engorgement, the swelling of excited tissues “in heat.”
The shapes and attributes of Otterness objects may derive from those of animation, particularly the styles of the early 1920s – simple shapes, easy to draw fast. But it is not simplicity for ease of repetition from frame to frame, but simplicity of signification, to speed the apprehension of the figure. Otterness' people are not animations but concretions. They are intended to stick in the mind, not fly through it.
Historically, Tom is among a cadre of contemporary artists who have sought universality in their abstract figuration, albeit from different sources. Among these were his late peers Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring turned to animated cartoons for inspiration, while Basquiat emulated demotic graffiti (not what Phase 2 called “aerosol art”). Tom's contemporary Matt Mullican has continued to draw on the symbology of international signage, and more recently Ryan McGinnis has used corporate logotypy in his decorative abstraction.
Otterness' characters are deployed in larger compositions that often resemble miniaturized movie sets, or animation stages. These arrangements enable their meanings to become fluid, like actors in a story who have “wandered off the set,” or gone “off-duty.” The figures may be numerous, sprinkled around a given site, out of the context of whatever narrative they may have figured in. They have a meaning, but the viewer is free to construct it, to build their own story. The meanings are as if “in a bag that's getting shaken.” That “bag” is the installation.
This compositional strategy reflects a field of general concern, as it does in the work of his late great peers. The compositions of Haring squirm in a fecund field of growth, a decorative vegetal dynamism that relies on the motions of sex. Basquiat's picto-textual critiques, his conceptual documents, are arranged into a post-colonial bill of attainder. Tom's work is deployed in a field of economic action. His figures move together and individually, acting in the playset of a market economy.
Early on in his work the massive Tables (1991) seems like a toy train set of political economy. Figural incidents cycle themes throughout the work: combative domestic partnerships, the struggle for subsistence, homelessness, striving to accumulate wealth, the effort to build collective images and the loss of collectivity. It's a synoptic cartoon of post-socialist capitalist world.
What animates this world is not some fiction of the cartoon narrative, but the strange career of money itself, moving often as giant coins, or sedentary in bags. This transformative force drives the action, controlling humans and humans as animals, metaphors for the phases of transformation.
Otterness work is the bestiary of capitalist society, deploying universal metaphors like those used by medieval scholastics to moralize on the human condition. For, while the figure of “man” is for us by now an obsolete universalizing term when used in language, the human remains universal when figured through the animal.
Yes, we are animals. In the economist John Maynard Keynes' term, it is our “animal spirits” which drive us spontaneously toward actions in the world. And, as our ancients Aristophanes and Aristotle observed, animals can represent kinds of human action.
What kind of animals are we? Are we of the herd, following the leader in a crowd, doing what the others do – like kine, bulls and cows. Or of the pack, like hyenas, wolves, dogs. Or – and by now clearly also “and” – maybe we are solitary predators, acknowledging only immediate family as companions on an endless hunt.
Aside from the morals of the bestiary, various notions of the animal inform our conceptions of what is natural, what is given in human behavior. The politician who delights in killing herd animals inveighs against socialism. Bulls who follow the herd make money in good times, but only bears, who travel alone, can prosper during bad. Mama bear will protect her cubs with an epic fury.
The bestiary of Otterness, the zoopoetics of his sculpture, purveys a set of animal figures through which we understand ourselves and our actions in the world. At the same time, even as we know that competing conceptions of homo natura continually emerge from zoological and ethological evidence to inform the economic sphere – (social darwinism and mutual aid, hive mind, entrepreneur as predator, etc.) – these animals now figure primarily in stories given to children. Animals in human form are found mostly in cartoons, the descendants of proverbs and fables. So we are free to ignore them. We learned these lessons long ago. Now we are not children.
But still, we are animals.
For Jacques Derrida, the animal is always the other. He writes of the gaze of the cat which sees him naked, eyes “bottomless... uninterpretable, unreadable, undecidable, abyssal.” This is the regard of the dumb animal. Otterness' objects of stone and metal too are mute. They seem to act, or stand and look with a dumb regard. But theirs is a hybrid gaze, the animal crossed, or sugared with the gaze of the child. This regard casts us as moral instructors. She might ask, “What are you doing?” We might reply that we are doing as you should do, or doing as you should never do.
Speaking to children is speaking to the future in all of us.
Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” translated by David Wills, Critical Inquiry, Winter, 2002
Carlos Basualdo, editor, Worthless (Invaluable): The Concept of Value in Contemporary Art (Ljubljana, Slovenia: Galerija Moderna, 2000)
studio interview with Tom Otterness, January 2011
Seth Tobocman and Eric Laursen, Understanding the Crash (Soft Skull Press, New York, 2010)