The Los-Angeles based artist Joel Otterson straddles the worlds of art, craft, and design with equal ease. In fact, all these are components of the same world for him. He says he is fascinated as much by ancient Greek design and aesthetics as he is by artifacts from the pre-Columbian Americas, or by masterpieces from 16th- and 17th-century Japan, or the works of Rembrandt Bugatti. His current thought process has led to an investigation of classical Greek vessels, whose forms he considers sublime. In his attempt to metamorphose aesthetics from the past with sensibilities of the present, he gives rise to works that speak equally to what inspired them and to what they have become.
An exhibition of these new works, “The Excited Eye,” is currently on view at Jason Jacques Gallery, New York. On view through June 16, it is being hosted in association with Elizabeth Dee Gallery. These works are sculptures inspired by aspects of domestic handicraft and sculptural materials. According to the gallery, “his interest in ‘Gesamkunstwerk’ or total work of art keeps his works in conversation with one another and their environments.”
On the occasion of his latest exhibition, Otterson speaks on his work, his inspiration and the materials he is yet to work with, in an interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO.
Could you talk about that moment in time during the early years of the evolution of your artistic practice when you realized that you wanted to work across cultures and not necessarily stick to high culture? how has been the journey so far?
I celebrate the “melting pot” that is America. I love the idea of new culture made from the blending of distant culture and becoming its own unique thing. Hybrid ideas excite me. New only exists in new combinations. I find some of the most meaningful objects are common everyday objects, especially when they have a personal memory and they trigger an emotion, like a souvenir. my investigation for 30-plus years has been the “Domestic Landscape” and inside of this scape, all kinds of objects can exist. My journey has been to work my way through the house and re-make everything inside of it and to re-make all objects in relation to human beings. I don’t make a distinction between high and low. I find the cache of Bronze-age farming tools at the British Museum just as fascinating and beautiful as a Velazquez painting, they equally excite me.
Who and what have been your inspirations? Any particular artist or any other creative individual whose work or ideology has inspired your work?
Of course, I have my heroes. I have always said, “Jackson Pollock was my father and Rose Selavy was my mother.” (Selavy was Duchamp in drag and photographed by Man Ray). I’ve always worshiped Constantin Brancusi. I adore the way you cannot distinguish between the sculpture and the pedestal. His hands made all that work from beginning to end, in the same way, my 10 fingers and two hands make all my work from beginning to end. I love it that Brancusi and Duchamp were best friends.
I love the whole Bugatti dynasty! Starting with Carlo, the father, who is one of my biggest inspirations. His works are hardly furniture, they are sculpture! Ettore Bugatti I would also call an artist even though he made cars, and then there are the sublime animal sculptures of Rembrandt Bugatti. Perhaps I am attracted to the family dynamic?
Michelangelo is the ultimate for me! I love the sculpture and painting but my true love is for his architecture. The Laurentian Library is just heaven on earth. Michelangelo used the vocabulary of architecture that existed for more than a thousand years but he put it into a sentence like no one had ever done before. He used those words in a new combination that was breathtaking and innovative. It is this kind of thing I strive for every day in my own studio.
Mostly, I love history and all moments of history. I love the decorative arts. Great furniture is great sculpture. Andre Charles Boulle, Daniel Marot, Duncan Phyfe, John Henry Belter, Thomas Chippendale, Frank Lloyd Wright... the list could go on. I admire and devour the works by all these people. To me, they are not great architects, designers or cabinetmakers but they are just great artists.
For your current show, you have investigated classical Greek vessels to create your works. What is it about Greek design and aesthetics that inspired you to explore it? What other cultures you think you would like to explore in future?
I love the sublime proportions in the Greek vessels. Golden proportion can be applied to these and they are timeless. In college, I studied Greek art and pottery but I had mostly forgotten about them. By chance, one day I stood in front of a pair of amphora at the Met Museum and I was reminded of how much I loved these objects. I thought how happy I would be if I had made these today. Then, I thought maybe I should try. The genetics in these forms are alive and well. “Genetics of Style” is an idea that intrigues me. I looked at more Greek forms that led me to Roman, Renaissance and 19th-century versions. All of this was inspired by a chance encounter at the Met one day.
Probably, the place I am the most fascinated by is Japan and have been for years. It is so different from my “Western World.” We are loud and boisterous, they are quiet and gentle. They make their houses out of paper! One must act very differently in a paper house. Masterpieces from the Momoyama period (1573-1615) are printed in mica on transparent paper and barely visible, only seen in the right light! In Japan, there is no distinction between craft and art. The basket weaver and the lacquer maker have the same esteem as the painter and sculptor in the western world.
I must say that the Contemporary world only holds my interest for a short moment. I saw the Danh Vo show at the Guggenheim and I liked it but the “Golden Kingdom” show at the Met (luxury objects from the Maya, Aztec, and Incas) I truly loved. Pre-Columbian Americas fascinate me. The objects of all native peoples of the Americas interest me because their intent is one of a sacred and ritual origin.
You have explored a variety of domestic handicraft and traditional material in your career? Is there some craft and material that you are keen on trying in future?
People ask, “What is your medium?” I answer, “I crochet, I weld and I do everything in between.” I like the idea of working “soft” a keen eye and working “hard” — the beauty is in their combination. It brings up ideas of masculine and feminine. Recently, the needlework has become more paramount in my practice. I love all traditional “women’s” work but the idea of it being made by a big gay man. I love all these rarified embroidery techniques like goldwork, stumpwork, and crewel. My interest is in the forgotten and in the impossible. A piece of lace that in today’s fast world would seem impossible to hand make, no one would know how, or much less have the time. Much of this kind of handwork has a sense of wonderment and I like that. I don’t want to make art that anyone else can make. I want people to view my art and say, “I could never do that and I would have never thought of that.” My goal is to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.
After recently seeing the stonework in churches in Italy I have ideas to work in “pietra dura” or stone inlay. I know of craftspeople in Italy who can make this happen for me. I would also love to work in Japanese lacquer. I have never woven cloth or tapestry. I understand the process, I know the difference between a warp and a weft but have never done it myself. I have made needle lace, but I have never made bobbin lace. These are all on my list of things to do.
Almost all top art fairs of the world today have a design component or an independent design fair that runs concurrently. What does that say for the market for Contemporary design? Is it the best time for practicing design artists in recent history?
When design is good it is art! I do not call myself a designer, I am an artist and a sculptor. I do not claim to be Charles Eames or Thomas Gerrit Rietveld. But when design is good it does something that a painting and a sculpture does not, it interacts with a person on a physical level. It mediates the way we sleep, eat dinner, and have conversation. It determines comfort in our lives and it gives us a sense of delight. Design has a very different goal than art. I enjoy when those boundaries are blurred. When a chair is really a sculpture or a sculpture can also be sat upon. There is electricity in that in-between space. People love beautiful objects, but people are skeptical of beauty when it comes to fine art. Beauty is acceptable in the design world. You sit on a beautiful sofa and you inherently look beautiful yourself. Design fills a need for beauty that the art world is not so willing to accept. I embrace beautiful objects of all kinds.