Above: Copper plumbing pipe and fittings, approximately 200 pieces of American pottery
Beautifully crafted, using a mind-boggling assortment of techniques that include plumbing, glazing, and sewing, Otterson's work addresses culture and class distinctions with muscle and wit.
The Advocate: I see you at the swap meets. Does seeing an interesting object trigger the idea for a sculpture? Or does the concept come first, then you start investigating materials?
Joel Otterson: This is the “the chicken or the egg?” question. I look for ideas everywhere; the smallest thing might inspire a work. It can be as simple as a blade of grass against the sunset that gives me an idea. Nature is a big inspiration. Words play an equal role. I am not only looking but also listening for ideas all the time. I work with ideas and they are what come to me first. Sometimes an object will inspire an idea, but equally a conversation with a friend or stranger can influence my art making. Generally, I get an idea or concept and then make a shopping list of the needed materials/objects to complete that idea.
Tell us some of your influences. We see Robert Rauschenberg, Rube Goldberg, steampunk. We could go on.
Brancusi would be one of my favorite artists and influences. He made everything himself and it was all by hand. I don’t send things out — I make everything myself. I also love decorative arts, furniture, dinnerware, and architecture, because it’s all about living. I was thinking the other day there isn’t a period in history I don’t enjoy: Modernism, Arts and Crafts, Victoriana, Baroque, and Rococo — I love them all, even ancient Rome and Hellenistic Greece. For many years 18th-century Europe and America were huge for me; Thomas Chippendale is like a god. Daniel Marot, architect and designer for the French and Dutch courts, is an inspiring figure for me. My Disco’s Bed was modeled after a bed by Marot at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. More recently, in the last 10 years, I am fascinated with everything Japanese, especially the Momoyama Period (1573-1615). The attitude is really different than our Western ideals; instead of stone and bronze it’s rice paper printed with mica and the image only appears when in certain light. My influences are eclectic, and for me it speaks about our “postmodern” world and especially about being American. We are all these things; all the time here in America it’s the blending of all this into something new.
The pieces that use American ceramics are stupendous. Which came first? The acquisition of the pottery? Or the idea for the sculpture?
I’ve been a “cerami-phile” forever and have collected ceramics for as long. I had made other “museums” as sculptures, The Coffee Table Museum and Dead or Alive/The Tea Cart Museum. It’s the artist trading places with the curator. This is where a simple conversation with a friend influences the work. My friend said, “You should make a sculpture out of your collection of pottery,” simple as that. I’ve made two “Walls of China.” The first was mostly my collection of American ceramics, McCoy, Red Wing, Roseville, Weller, and others. I shopped for pieces to have enough, about 200 pieces. The second work I actively collected and shopped for but, it was not only made from the collectible American ceramics but it included many homemade and handmade ceramics. I included into this collection the discarded pinch pots lovingly made by some child for their parents. Christmas, Mother’s and Father’s Day, Valentine’s gifts all discarded and up for sale, divorced from their original loving intention and gesture. I decided that these had as much potential meaning as the piece of McCoy. I am very interested in how an inanimate object can trigger an emotion.
Your work is often heroic in scale and scope, and at the same time there are materials and crafts associated with women's work. What attracted you to quilting, for example?
Maybe it’s family tradition. My mother makes quilts and taught me to sew when I was 3 or 4 years old. I also love the fact that I’m a big “bear” of a guy and it’s sort of a contradiction. I’m happy that I can carry on this tradition of needlework. Recently my neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter wanted to learn how to sew. Her mother and grandmother didn’t know how to sew, so I was the person that taught her how. I thought it was nice that a young girl still wanted to learn how to sew. Traditionally, men did tailoring. But quilting, embroidery, and lacemaking was women’s work. I do all those things. I’d like to think that it’s a political statement. I am a feminist, but not the Gloria Steinem kind. On occasion I have met up with a friend in Central Park — he’s big, manly. and smokes cigars, and I’m “bearish,” he would tat and I would crochet. Even in NYC where anything goes, this was outrageous, two blue-collar-looking guys sitting on a park bench making strips of lace, it was crazy and I loved every minute of it. The bottom line is that something made by hand is completely different that that made by a machine or in a factory. I celebrate what my hands and their 10 fingers can do.
You can see his work in an exhibition at MaloneyFineArt.com September 8 through October 27 in Los Angeles.
For the past 30 years, Joel Otterson has made sculpture that combines aspects of domestic handicraft with traditional sculptural materials. Copper pipe, woodworking, pottery, porcelain, china, earthenware, concrete, marble, stained glass, quilting, and lacemaking are the raw materials of Joel’s sculpture. Utilizing practices such as sewing and quilting, traditionally associated with feminine craft-making, Joel turns these humble materials into muscular art. The artist blurs the line between high and low culture, art and craft to create poignant sculptures that are both utilitarian and deconstructivist sculptural objects. Through this endeavor he explores rock and roll, baseball, and what it means to be an American.
Otterson, who was born in Los Angeles in 1959, spent most of his childhood in Oregon and attended Parsons School of Design in New York City, where he remained for two decades. Joel was one of the youngest artists ever selected for a one-person exhibition in the Projects Room of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1987). The artist’s work is included in the permanent collections of Cincinnati Art Museum, the Broad Foundation, the Israel Museum, and many others.
Joel Otterson’s work was included in the 1993 Venice Biennale and was included in "Made in L.A," the first California biennial to be held at the Hammer Museum, this summer.
The artist lives and works in Los Angeles.
Copper plumbing pipe and fittings, various tables, manhole cover, fire and gas, glass
Copper plumbing pipe and fittings, steel, live chickens, porcelain lamps, sod, redwood, antique Dutch tiles
Dinnerware cut and inlaid into concrete, approximately eight square feet
1961 AMI Continental Jukebox, glass and steel, vinyl records
Mixed media (installation Cincinnatti Art Center 1994)
Copper plumbing pipe and fittings, reproduction Queen Anne tea table