PRINT October 1983


At a moment when every public personality and every inherited ideology is suspect, Tom Otterness has revived the ideological function of architectural friezes and unabashedly appropriated this antique vehicle for his own invented genealogy of royalty and female revolution, battles and triumphs, power struggles and contemporary final judgments. Architectural friezes traditionally commemorate or venerate ritual public occasions, military victories, or national achievements. More generic is the tradition of relief sculpture, an art that survives well on ancient sepulchral monuments and also migrates through Renaissance ornament and bronze cathedral doors. Inserting himself in this patrilineal tradition of art history, Otterness has pastiched his own topically significant, iconographic program, one that is politically liberal and open-ended in its associative capacity, and glazed with a mordant, economical wit reminding us of James Thurber’s marvelous style in Men, Women and Dogs (1943).

Otterness’ political program is rooted in praxis, his participation in a collective mode of artistic production and distribution. One of the founding members of Co-lab (Collaborative Projects), he was a key organizer as well as exhibitor in the Times Square Show, 1980, which brought together esthetically diverse artists in a highly visible alternative to a closed art-world system. Around the time of these collaborative theme shows Otterness became controversial for Shot Dog Film, a super-8 film made in 1977 in which he executed a dog from the pound. Not aired on cable TV until the end of 1979, the film brought him enormous notoriety in the art world and in the outraged mass-media coverage. The psychology of the act is disturbing, even horrible, but I am reluctant to locate it on a sliding scale of sensationalism, art, and morality. Never denying the moral dilemma that the work practically broadcasts on every level, Otterness refuses to comment on motives or disclose his reasons for making the film or shooting the dog, saying only that the work was honed down to be the way it is. He’s never provided explanations that could be used as interpretive handles to make me and others feel better about it. In fact even if one trotted out the predictable humanitarian rationales or art justifications, I would still be leery of accepting them since they might just represent retrospective consistency, and I would fall into a trap of intentional ist fallacy. What remains is a problem, a question, and a commemorative plaque done in 1980 depicting the skeletons of a man and a dog before a tribunal. In addition to this nagging baggage, before his frieze was first exhibited last year Otterness was best known for the simple white figurines—“hand-produced collector’s items” cast in durable Hydrostone and protected with a hard, glossy surface—that he sold originally for $4.99 and which popped up first all over New York and then elsewhere. Crowds of these tiny white objects, each in its own plastic bag, are arrayed, waiting for delivery, on tabletops in his studio—which he calls “the factory,” perhaps in acknowledgment of the guild tradition as well as of his Pop predecessors. His themes in the frieze are obvious from these appealingly inconsequential objects, many of which are of pairs—Father/Daughter, wrestlers, lovers, and Death Angel, a winged skeleton fused in a final embrace with an asexual figure. What had been fragmentary, offhand remarks or satirical signals in these ubiquitous figurines coalesces in the format of the frieze, being anchored in a larger structure which nonetheless demonstrates Otterness’ adherence to alternatives to the one-of-akind masterpiece system.

Unlike classical friezes, Otterness’ work—sold by the running foot with a required minimum order of 20 feet—can be adjusted to the architectural specifications of any context, but its content, the narrative, remains the same. One story fits all. He has found a way to create an animated version of the egg-and-dart decoration, a continuous processional in which ends are beginnings and conclusions initiations, all approximating the self-perpetuating circularity of neolithic sagas or the sculptural equivalent of biblical begats.

Flirting with low culture framed in high-art conventions, Otterness fulfills a 1983 desire for the pleasures of kitsch, homogenized in a synthetic material, Polyadam, the artists’ equivalent of Tastee-Freez. In order to go forward, Otterness, like any good “post” Modernist, goes backward not merely into history, but into prehistory, giving the work an evolutionary emphasis that surfaces in whatever medium he chooses. A group of deeply modeled heads, for example, recalls the evolutionary lineups, shown in natural-history museums, that trace facial development from ape to early man. Recent wall paintings showed pneumatic yellow giants balancing their miniature doubles on their shoulders, Saint Christopher style, an illustration of the idea of dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants, a metaphor used in the 12th century to express the dependence of the moderns on their antique predecessors. In the frieze these cartoon renditions of ancestors, with the blank features of Al ley-Oop and the celluloid strength of Conan the Barbarian, wrestle with a morality in which actions have consequence and physical force is assigned to heroes and heroines. Cartoons about savvy preliterates are a popular and almost predictable source for fictional primitivism at a time when graffiti artists have become, for some, pet romantic naïfs, and cartoons—the equivalent of tribal artifacts—symbolize the unconstrained energy and desire of early-20th-century America.

Ascribing maleness and femaleness to identical squat, columnar bodies, Otterness attaches breasts and penises in an esthetic of appendages. In a book published in 1981, he drew a code of visual correspondences emphasizing comparative anatomy: crude drawings, like diagrams, of the genitalia of 12-week-old male and female embryos look very similar; other cross-sections reveal correspondences of such things as mouths and hearts, as well as a TV tube and a uterus containing a fetus, evoking the multiplying system of equivalences of Claes Oldenburg. Otterness’ biologism minimizes the difference between the sexes, but scrupulously segregates them, perhaps as an inherit-ance of the biologically dominated psychoanalytic thrust of the ’70s. Otterness’ central sculptural motif is the human body, whose plastic capability he celebrates at the same time that he represses its expressive potential. He has streamlined a body type and a repertoire of convincing body positions from a number of polyglot sources. Obvious formal parallels are easily made between Otterness’ figures and the isomorphic volumes of the erotic, sinuous couplings of Indian deities. Indeed, the plump guardian elephants from a warrior frieze from Lakshmana temple provide a perfect thematic as well as formal match to his work.

Indian myths celebrating sensuality and powerful female deities have influenced the sculptor. Like a visual body snatcher, he sketches from medical manuals and art-history volumes, strategically using Etruscan sculpture, Renaissance paintings, and masterpieces by Holbein, Poussin, Delacroix, and Picasso,as well as work by S.P. Dinsmoor, a politicized folk artist, who worked in the ’20s in Kansas, where Otterness grew up. Otterness’ notebooks reveal a complex synthesis resulting in a style that just looks simple. Overall, what is extruded is the look, and even the spirit, of Bruegel’s compact figures, protagonists in parables of conflicts of good and evil. An autobiographical reality is what prevents all this quotation from slipping into an academic exercise. The figures in combat, for instance, are pairings derived from Otterness’ ten-year experience in the martial arts, a discipline which also instilled lessons in musculature and anatomy.

First installed at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in 1983, and more recently in a complete and permanent version for the Lannan Foundation in Lake Worth, Florida, the frieze (which remains untitled) includes 17 individual 4-foot-long panels. The narrative unfolds to the right and left of a central panel, “Judgment,” located at the midpoint of the far wall of a given interior. The androgynous agent of this section, like Saturn, simultaneously devours and gives birth to royal offspring. Cannibalization—an allusion to the art-making process—is implied, as are the conflation of past and future, reproductive cycles, and notions of eternal recurrence. Following a symmetry maintained throughout the frieze, masculine exploits such as “Male Revolution,” “The King’s Parade,” and “Fall of the King,” are all aligned on the right, and to the left are panels such as “Female Revolution,” “Boating Party,” and “Female Heroics.” The crux of the narrative cycle is a black baby girl, molded like a doll, lying on her back on a pedestal usually placed in the center of the space. In a counterpoint reference to Atlas, horizontal yet still powerful, she balances a disproportionately large globe the size of a basketball on her hand, the center of a centrifugal force that spins the cycle round and round. If for Otterness she is the immaculate conception of the future, as the strength of her limbs would indicate, her promise of power is somehow outscaled by the overall proportions of the frieze.

The images in the frieze glorifying the power of women and of the work force are situated in a literature that moves from anthropological studies to socialist programs. Otterness’ women are like the neolithic matriarchs whose mythic exploits were transcribed by anthropologists and cited as evidence for reform in socialist movements of the 19th century. The investigations of matriarchy in antiquity that Johann Jacob Bachofen published in 1861 became a reference point for such theoreticians as Friedrich Engels and August Bebel, who integrated women’s equality into their political and economic programs. They believed that the preservation of private property through patrilineal descent destroyed the possibility of truly collective society. Popular revolutions are often accompanied by challenges to the orthodoxies governing marriage, divorce, and sexuality.

Otterness’ contribution to this male-authored feminist discourse is inflected with recent feminism and more specifically with a sense of the situation of women in the art world today. Neither anthropologist nor reformer, his contribution is fictionalized, stylized, historicized; in short, it is an esthetic response to the collective realities of the past and present. The artist credits his colleagues (Cara Perlman, Kiki Smith) for sharing ideas, and his factory is run by women. Still, his feminism is bloodless, without gore or even emotion. Only in an earlier wall plaque, Female Victory, 1981, did a stain of blood appear, in the coloring of a relief depiction of women hunched entombment-style over a prostrate male. In the more violent scenes installed around the doorway opening into the room of the frieze, sections leading up to and including “The Battle of the Sexes” look like a figural interlace, whose baroque exaggeration is iced over by creamy stylization. Women ram men in an undulating struggle that has no victors and whose potential horror is dialectically mediated, even muffled by the frozen cartoon expressions. In the panel “Female Revolution,” the phallus on a pedestal is bound and overturned; the king is neatly dismembered, decapitated, and castrated, his crown severed from his head with the same clean slice that separates him from his penis. The revolutionaries support each other and balance on top of a sphere; what had been a universal emblem of male rationality is now a prop for jubilant female acrobatics. In the corresponding male panel, men overturn their symbol, a car; hoist an elephant; and finally question their intellectual données by cracking open one of those spheres. Not only do the males overthrow their ruler, they humiliate him by having him kiss the ass of the regal elephant.

What Otterness’ bodies never do in the frieze, what is the absent/present in his micro-narrative of a macro-struggle, is the coupling of males and females. And when this act of love does appear in one of his Hydro-cal multiple objects, Couple II, 1978 (recast in 1982), it is as a completely asexual sandwich of identical human forms. Perhaps sex is absent from the frieze because it is unsuitable for this comic style, skirting too close to porno-kitsch, or perhaps contemporary feminist consciousness inhibits the mythologizing of sex. Certainly its depiction might rip the veil of distance in the frieze, undo the delicate sense of allegory.

In keeping with Utopian notions of sexual equality, Otterness plugs in panels of an equal number of male and female workers. An instance of oppositional equilibrium—the existence of the male crowd depending upon and mirroring its female equivalent—thus illustrates the first basic antithesis in Elias Canetti’s analysis of the origins of the double crowd. Emphasizing the interdependency of the two crowds, Canetti stresses the fact that although they might be rivals they “keep each other alive” and then notes that the male/ female antithesis is associated with the antagonism between the living and the dead and between friend and foe. The latter is the most common attribute of opposing crowds and, of course, also applies to the dichotomy in Otterness’ frieze.1 Both machine and filler, these laborers trudge forward playing the part of a Greek chorus; their segregated march (the concept of women’s work is the oldest division of labor) toward the crescendo wall of “Judgment” is the production line. Like pleurants at the sides of tombs, these look-al ikes lug their sacks, their burden of exploitation, in a human chain whose dynamic moves the historical fiction forward.

What prevents Otterness’ text from disappearing completely in extended metonymic linkages, in promiscuous associative capacity, is its tone of self-mockery and its miniature scale, which undercut the aura of magnified rhetoric in this framing device that signifies history. Above eye level, comfortably nestled against the ceiling, the work is self-effacing, camouflaged as architectural ornament; up close it becomes legible, an epicycle in which his ancestral figures represent the tribunal of history calling daily life and false consciousness into question. Otterness’ conscious integration of art-historical and media lessons distinguishes his work from that of conventional post-Modern pluralists who graft on everything in historical sight. The content of this frieze is informed by and takes advantage of post-Modern architecture’s recuperation of decoration and ornament. Too much of a Modernist to try for the aura of a Michelangelo in 1983, Otterness’ reproductions wryly relate to those proliferating miniature souvenirs of giant Davids. Wary of overt statements of political and social criticism, Otterness cartoons his way to utopia. Such a dialectical reformulation between past and present has been passionately advanced by Fredric Jameson: “The very dynamics of the historical tribunal are unexpectedly and dialectically reversed: it is not we who sit in judgment on the past, but rather the past, the radical difference of other modes of production (and even of the immediate past of our own mode of production), which judges us, imposing the painful knowledge of what we are not, what we are no longer, what we are not yet.”2

Judith Russi Kirshner is a critic who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.



1. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York Continuum Publishing Co., 1982), pp. 63–64.

2. Fredric Jameson, “Marxism and Historicism,” New Literary History, vol. XI, no. 1, 1979. 70.