A Fond Farewell to the Otterness Sculptures

By Teresa Zbiciak

Head. Tom Otterness.

This weekend of the festivals will be Grand Rapids' last with Tom Otterness’s quirky, cartoonish bronzes. Fredrick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park curated this exhibition, of 37 sculptures, only four of which were at the Gardens itself. Calling the show “The Gardens to the Grand,” made clear a primary goal of orienting a public interested in art back to the downtown area.

At first, there was some doubt. Tom Otterness’s easy on the eye style, looking something like the offspring of Mickey Mouse and the Have a Nice Day smiley face, made it seem to many as though the FM Gardens were coddling the public. Who would honestly take more than a moment’s interest in something so irreverent and…cute?

It turns out that a lot of people did. I had the honor of guiding about twenty official tours down Monroe Center, and a handful of unofficial citywide walks. Though consistently attended by various-sized handfuls of people, the grandest response came on what’s been called “the Procrastinator’s Last Chance tour”: 54 people ranging in age from 5 to75 mobbed the Otternesses from the Civic Auditorium (Big Big Penny) to the Children’s Museum (Gulliver). Walking around the downtown area, people have been taking their own walking tours as well, or passively regarding them on lunch and cigarette breaks.

After a stint as a hermitic Rothko-esque painter, Tom Otterness’ artistic aims moved into public art. In the 1960’s he was a member of Co-Lab with such notables as Kiki Smith and Jenny Holzer. This organization worked largely on getting art out of the museums and onto the streets where people could approach it without having any sort of education or art historical background. This ethos shines through in this body of work, even though I was one of the museum sponsored tour guides whose job it was to tell you so.

Earlier this summer, Tom Otterness toured Grand Rapids on three separate occasions, choosing sites for his sculptures. Most of the placements were oriented on or around the Grand River – a nod to its historical importance to the city - as much as they were integrated into the various plazas and nooks on the street that were already populated with his potential audience.

Couple Holding Hands. Otterness.

In one of his most interesting placements, Couple Holding Hands (across the street from a former collaborator with Tom, Maya Linn’s Ecliptic, commonly referred to as Rosa Park Circle) share a corner with – in fact, seems to regard as sight-seer - the traditionally realistic bronze sculpture of Senator Vandenberg. It creates a humorous reflection on spectatorship, since we as people are looking at artistic representations of people looking at an artistic representation of a person, who seems – at different angles - to be either looking back at us, or back at the little characters admiring him.

It was at this stop, on our last tour that a particularly astute young lady (about seven years old) inquired, “Why is the girl naked?” The masked rider is a nude woman as well. Many of the bronzes are selectively clothed: one might say that we’ve caught the misers and the embezzlers with their pants down, or recall recent cases against Donald Duck’s pantslessness, but what about the women? Simply referring to Tom Otterness’s character list of rich people, workers, cops, and “naked little radicals” seems to skirt the issue entirely.

I would venture to say that in these sculptures, his work does follow in an art historical tradition of artistic representation of the female nude, possibly tapping into the sense of scandal that Manet’s Dejuener sur l’herb caused. For Manet’s audience, placing a nude woman in a contemporary setting with clothed men suggested a very inappropriate theme. The same could not be said for the Pastoral Concert, since it had the air of myth and history a long time gone. In a more recent art world buzz, the Guerilla Girls have pointed out the problems of the museum as upholding unfair patriarchal views by being filled with nude women and no recognition of female artists. The problem with this track of thinking is, however, that Tom Otterness would not expect anyone to have to know any of this.

He cannot rightfully be dismissed as misogynist, in fact his work is closely aligned with feminism. In many of his allegories, he has given the power and wisdom to the woman over the man. For instance, in Educating the Rich on the Globe (removed early from the exhibition due to surface damage) a woman has tackled the pants-less male with a book, and women have here replaced the businessmen that hold up the globe in Miser. In Gulliver and Embezzler and Cop, the small female figure is invested with the power over a larger male character. It is not with any note of bitterness, but rather a self-deprecating humor and reflection on gender equality as it exists in the American culture.

If you’re still with me, you might say to yourself with not a little cynicism: “There is no ‘American Culture’, its all appropriation and marketing strategies.” There is a common conception that there is no visual language for artists to use. Symbols in art have taken a turn towards the personal or the obscure. Concepts that have been the impetus behind artistic decisions have failed to jump the gap to a large audience that presupposes their own inability to understand art.

The immediate approachability of the Otterness sculptures, which in the beginning caused such consternation for those who had been indoctrinated with an informed view of art, serve as proof of the existence of a shared cultural experience and visual language in the United States. It includes a mythologized history and a consistent regard for - and public discourse concerning - issues of gender, money, and class hierarchies. Beyond the immediate recognition of the plump figures that show up as various mass media icons (mascots for businesses or sports teams, comic strips or cartoons, and board games like Monopoly) their narratives evoke a memory of historical events and fictions that all public schools have been making sure the children are aware.

Covered Wagon taps into the perception of the early American journey out west, as we viewers have been informed by such pop culture phenomena as the public school employed video game, "Oregon Trail". At the same time, there’s a personal familiarity in this as what Otterness called “the stereotypical Midwest summer vacation.” With Gulliver, even if someone had never read Gulliver’s Travels, or seen the movie or cartoon version or TV miniseries, the concept would not be lost on them. The artist frequently gives “Herculean strength” to the small, and disenfranchised. And if that concept did not cross the viewer’s mind, certainly the fun of crawling all over him, or watching others play on it, would make the sculpture an object of great social value.

Covered Wagon. Otterness.

His are incarnations of public art as it should be. It is not because bronze has been a time honored traditional material for sculptures in the public realm, though it does give their flippant little forms some historical legitimacy. They are not confrontational and critical, such as Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. They are not controversial, precluding other civic additions, or dismissed as unintelligible, as Calder’s La Grande Vitesse has been for many in the city of Grand Rapids. The ethics of cost have not overshadowed these bronzes, as Jean Claude and Christo’s Gates inspired (possibly because so many of them have a loving little lesson about the transience of wealth and prosperity.)

They do inspire controversy, but over issues larger than themselves as objects. Though they are not site specific (they were not created with a specific location in mind) they inspire a public discussion – right there on the street - between strangers over issues particular to them. Many have asked if any of the sculptures will stay in Grand Rapids – some of them suggesting that certain rich donators should purchase the work rather than putting their names on buildings - since they seem to fit in so well and add so much vibrancy to the downtown area. Unfortunately for us, the exhibition travels on, but for one particular sculpture.

Fredrick Meijer Gardens have voted to keep Mad Mom at the Gardens. They are also negotiating for the artist’s promise to make no further versions of Mad Mom in the future. She has remained inside a gallery all summer, and visitors have had to pay a fee in order to see her. This is an unfortunate result of such a positive exhibit. Have the Gardens learned nothing of the purpose of Otterness’s public art?

The artist’s goals are not to create valuable objects of desire, but for them to be touched, interacted with, and to end up in more family photo albums than any other artist in history. At the opening reception, the guards quickly admonished the eager hands that wanted to fully appreciate the sculpture. There was total confusion for the viewer who had to negotiate between the artist’s intent and the gallery’s rules.

I think, however, that people have recognized this. The exhibition has transcended this little grievance, and given a better understanding of art’s power to do some civic good. In all, the exhibition was a great addition to Grand Rapids’ history of involvement with public sculpture, and it will be sad to see the cranes pull Gulliver up from his tethers and send him on a journey to another Lilliput.

A native of Flint, MI, Teresa Zbiciak is currently in her 4th year studying art and design at Grand Valley State University (and wherever else she can find it). She is also a volunteer for Meijer Gardens as well as an ex-Trekkie and cafe barista. Teresa plans on furthering her study of art history in graduate school.

Posted on September 10, 2006 6:17 PM


so i totally apreciate the significance of where each statue is placed and what otterness is saying with the placement and the scene that the statue depicts, but i absolutely cant stand looking at the actual statues. at first i would pass one and see it and kind of think about the message that he is trying to get across and the statue would amuse me. but the amusement of a city full monopoly men passes quickly. but i guess it is the family friendliness of the statues that really makes the passerby pay attention everything.

Posted by: sam on September 10, 2006 6:39 PM

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