Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Seducing unsuspecting audiences - Tom Otterness in Indianapolis, various public locations - April 27, 2005

* Pictured - "Male and Female Tourist" is part of Tom Otterness' installations in Indianapolis.

Tom Otterness’ collection of 25 bronze sculptures of various sizes have unavoidable impact. With pieces like “See No Evil” perfectly poised in front of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, they are hard not to encounter. Visually accessible with sculptural protagonists characterized by playful, bulbous bodies and anthropomorphic, iconic smiley (and unsmiling) faces, they successfully seduce unsuspecting audiences.

“Big Big Penny,” a sculpture on the steps of the World War Memorial, does this exceedingly well. A top-hatted capitalist character recalling Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags sits atop a big penny with a drink in hand and nuclear family at his side while trying to steady himself as a poor family rolls the penny from beneath him. Two little male workers (with realistic parts) kiss next to the penny as if unaware of the turmoil while another worker gets squashed.

Most works, with context being key, are smart and complicated social commentaries, particularly the “Tree of Knowledge” at the City Market. This tiny revolution has multiple layers of interpretation that could easily inspire insightful conversations as well as photo-ops with tourists and families. It, like so many other pieces on view, is a commentary on the little guy’s plight to get ahead and the ugly side of capitalism.

Otterness’ ability to parlay conflict and disenchantment through initially sweet, pudgy, harmless looking characters has effectively provoked public interest (meaning usurped or not) by simply being enjoyable to view, as successful public art should do. A prime example of this charm is seen in the smallest piece in this collection, located outside of Starbucks on the Circle, of a pint-sized panhandler, “Boy and Dog.” Though sweet at first glance, upon close inspection it defies Disneyfication.

Otterness’ approach and refinement of craft have garnered him places in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum. His pieces are beautifully, sympathetically conceived from their materials.

Now the question becomes whether Indianapolis will be able to maintain this quality of public arts exhibitions and arts philanthropy. Who in Indianapolis will match and continue this level of public patronage now that this precedent has been set?

Tom Otterness in Indianapolis runs through July 31, Thanks to the Arts Council’s Mindy Taylor Ross and the Deborah Joy Simon Charitable Trust for giving Tom Otterness due credence and bringing his exhibition. Simon made a $50,000 grant. The Cultural Development Commission funded $238,000. Through July 31. - Mary Lee Pappas

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