Joel Otterson

Michael Solway Gallery

Joel Otterson’s recent show opened with a real garage door whose redwood panels and metal hardware had been entirely covered with a pressure-sealed, digitized color photograph (made in collaboration with Tom Allison) depicting his lush garden in Kentucky. With this oddly paradoxical door, which was at once solid and penetrable, utilitarian and visionary, the artist informed us that he’s getting out of the house and back to nature—moving from funky furniture extravaganzas to works that achieve a kind of horticultural expressionism. The Garden Door, 1996, set the stage for this transition, door and photograph fusing to suggest a narrative.

There has always been a virile domesticity to Otterson’s sculpture, which until now has consisted of reinvented household objects. Beds, vanities, coffee tables, refrigerators, and jukeboxes are fabricated from a variety of discarded materials: copper tubing, rubber wheels, disco lights, gaudy fringe, and blowzy fabrics. His foraging, however feverish, has always been tempered by a puritanical thriftiness and a tender mating of disparate parts.

Otterson’s progress from house to garden coincides with an urge to work with traditional materials—to model clay and carve wood. The obvious pleasure he takes in the natural environment is embodied in two gleeful glazed terra-cotta dwarfs, Friends and KISS Gnomes, both 1997. But the deity who presides over this fecund atmosphere is Desire, 1997, a muscle-bound Eros with a flower for a head who is blessed with a penile appendage of such serpentine extension that it could conceivably seed entire acres of land.

On a broad dais beyond The Garden Door, Otterson arranged his largest sculptures: tall, terra-cotta urns with columnar, labial, and exfoliating forms. Most of them nestle bouquets of cut flowers or live plants: agave cactus, Boston ferns, Irish moss, African violets, and, in Back-To-Back, 1997, even a small orange tree. One such “pot” was perched on a granite rock; others were ensconced on tiered redwood frames resembling Japanese cross-timbering. In its collective grouping and iconic verticality, the installation resembled arrangements of Constantin Brancusi’s totemic sculptures. However, the connection to Brancusi’s work and its spiritual aspirations only underscored the down-to-earth yet rococo abundance of complex shapes in Otterson’s sculpture, the calculated fragility of the plants, and the conglomeration of pebbles, stone, quartz, and crystals. He finds signs of life in the clear evidence of manufacture and cross-breeding between materials and forms, rather than the polished elimination of traces of manual labor. As if emphasizing this, two clunky roses, Alive and Dead and Hope, both 1997, punctuated the scene, each cut with a chain saw from large blocks of wood. These aggressively assertive yet utterly winsome sculptures feature precariously petaled leaves lashed with whiplike marks.

Otterson seems determined to jump over the fences separating folk from fine arts: he’s transgressive yet sentimental, a brazen adventurer with a delicate sensibility. Out of such unlikely traits have emerged vigorous sculptural hybrids. It’s fun to imagine these garden furnishings for sale in a Smith & Hawken catalogue, but they’re too artful, too primal and iconic for your average weekend gardener.

Joan Seeman Robinson