Monday, August 25, 2014

ART BIZ | Tom Otterness Sculptures

Homeless woman sleeping in subway station.
August 25, 2014–In December 2011 I posted the following, and it seems now timely to re-post it in the context of the mayoralty of Bill de Blasio.

The Eighth Avenue subway stop at 14th Street is one I frequently step out at to switch from the A train to the local E or C train that stops at 23rd Street.

The station has many sculptures by Tom Otterness that I often take the time to study while waiting for the next local train.

Born in 1952, Otterness has been called the most prolific public artist in the United States.

Collectively called "Life Underground", the 100 or so sculptures in the 14th Street station  can be viewed as social criticism in harmony with the Occupy Wall Street dichotomy of the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent.

Man being questioned.
The MTA has a video of Otterness's work on YouTube. Otterness, who comes from Wichita, Kan. and has a studio in Brooklyn, is probably best known for these subway station sculptures and in the Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City.

Frightened man peering around rail.
Many of his sculptures depict the life of the poorest of the 99 percent.

For example, the first photo I took was of a homeless woman huddled at the foot of a large riveted beam.

The second one was of a frightened man peering around an aluminum fence. Cities can be frightening places.
Police standing guard.

Sculptures of police stand guard over enclosures, or over would-be farebeaters or over large bags of money.

Otterness's sympathies do not seem to lie with the 1 percent!

The poor are depicted as vulnerable people with children. They are watched over by men in uniforms with sticks at the ready.

The 1 percent are shown less favorably.

Money-bag-headed shellfish has a family in its claws. 
They are frequently depicted with a money-bag where a head should be, as in the photo of a giant lobster- or crab-like animal that has captured a family in its huge claws. Looks to me like a post-2008 foreclosure.

Boss Tweed as Thomas Nast saw
The use of a money bag for a head follows Thomas Nast's portrait of Boss Tweed. Faceless.

The police are not portrayed as the villains, just people with a star on their chest doing their job to protect property. Yes, of the 1 percent, but a lot more of the population than that.

The final sculpture shows government workers sweeping up the pennies.  I puzzled over this one. Are these predatory lenders?  That could be one interpretation. Payroll loans?

Or, the next thing that came to mind, they could be collecting the  payroll tax, sweeping up the poorest workers' pennies... and regressively exempting all incomes above a certain threshold.

Government workers sweep up the pennies. Payroll tax?
Otterness has done work in many other cities. However, he ran into trouble in San Francisco. The City Government was ready to sign him up to do some work there when local animal-rights activists drew attention to a film he made in the 1970s in which he shot a dog in front of the camera.

He has abjectly apologized for the shooting, but it seems to have lost him the San Francisco contract as well as one in Nebraska. It may also have been linked to the Battery Park City Authority's denial of a follow-on contract in 2011.

Apart from this long-ago animal-rights offense, which does put his later-life compassion in a new light, I think Otterness has a good formula.

He shows urban inequality in a rudimentary way,  memorably but allegorically. It's a message that gets lost in the hubbub of people going about their business.

And his work does not pillory any group so specifically that anyone can take personal offense. 

I mean, who would sue the MTA on the grounds that the creature with claws was surely meant to represent him or her?

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