ART : How to Push That Bad-Taste Button : ‘My work is loud,’ sculptor Joel Otterson admits. But what do you expect from a guy who cut his teeth on punk music?

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

In 1977, artist Joel Otterson graduated from high school, moved to New York and enrolled at the Parsons School of Design. That was the year punk broke, and there was a strong relationship then between New York’s community of young artists and the highly conceptual punk scene. You’d assume an artist with Otterson’s interest in pop culture spent his nights at CBGB seeing Talking Heads and Television, but you’d be wrong.

“I was at Studio 54 six nights a week--I’ve always loved disco,” enthuses the 35-year-old artist, who paid homage to the maligned musical genre in 1990 with a massive kinetic sculpture titled “Disco Bed.” A multipurpose mattress wired for sound, with a built-in light show and spandex sheets, it’s a rococo creation worthy of Liberace, and it’s typical of Otterson’s work.

“My work is loud, and I want it to yell at people,” the artist confesses during a conversation at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station, where his first Los Angeles exhibition in five years continues through Nov. 7. “I admit my work looks ugly to me sometimes--I often look at it and can’t believe I made it,” Otterson says with a laugh. He had recently arrived in Los Angeles after a three-day drive from his home in Covington, Ky.


“I think it has a horrific beauty, though, and people who write it off as kitsch aren’t looking deep enough. People tend to dismiss my work as light and funny, and the phrase bad taste often comes up in critiques of my art, but that has never made sense to me. My idea of bad taste is stupidity and narrow-mindedness.”

Otterson’s point is a good one, but he certainly doesn’t refrain from pushing the bad-taste buttons. With its parodies of class consciousness and taste, Otterson’s work is rooted in an aesthetic of excess that combines debased elements of interior design, motifs from rock culture, and a wonderfully wacky approach to comfort. His body of work includes heirloom china decorated with logos of rock bands, a kitchen table equipped with a TV, a bathtub that has been transformed into a love seat, and a vintage jukebox flanked by life-size glass skeletons that functions as an urn to hold the ashes of a loved one.


Otterson, who was born in Los Angeles in 1959, had an idyllic childhood spent mostly in Grants Pass, Ore., where his family moved when he was 8. Otterson’s father was a plumber, as is his older brother, but Otterson himself was never pressured to take up the family trade.

“Oregon was great until I turned 13; then I wanted to be running up and down Sunset Boulevard in platform shoes,” he continues. “From the time I was 13 until I got out of high school, I spent summers in L.A. with my half-brother Ken and his wife, Barbie, and I was totally into the glitter scene--I had an earring, a Bowie cut, the works.”

After he graduated from high school in 1977, Otterson enrolled at Parsons School of Design, planning on a career in fashion design.

“I thought the coolest artists of the second half of the 20th Century were the designers--things like the Lincoln Continental with the denim roof designed by Bill Blass really knocked me out. (Car designer) Ettore Bugatti is on par with Duchamp for me, and I also love Thomas Chippendale and Daniel Marot, who was a decorator who did parts of Versailles. During my second year, however, my design teacher took me aside and said, ‘Joel, stop making art and start making dresses,’ and a light bulb went on over my head. I realized I didn’t move to New York to become a dressmaker--I moved there to be an artist, so I switched my major to sculpture.

“Pattern and Decoration was the big thing in New York then and I loved it, but painting isn’t physical enough for me,” he continues. “At that point I was very interested in Rauschenberg’s work; I like the fact that his work doesn’t abide by any rules. I was also influenced by Brancusi, and early on I made really quiet work--tall, thin things that stood in the corner and almost disappeared.”

Otterson had his first exhibition at Manhattan’s Nature Morte Gallery in 1983, the year after he graduated from Parsons. He became part of a community of young artists exhibiting their work on the Lower East Side--a group that included Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Haim Steinbach--and he felt a connection with the work they were making. “It’s often happened that I’ll see a piece by Richard Prince or Jeff Koons and think, ‘I don’t have to do that now.’ We have a lot of parallel interests.”

Otterson’s work, however, is tougher to sell. “It’s a huge commitment to buy my work--a lot of it is kinetic, and it’s big and heavy,” says Otterson, who supported himself for much of the ‘80s working for a company that made hand-painted fabric. Otterson is now able to live off his work, partly because he moved last year from New York to Kentucky.

“A dealer I know named Carl Solway moved to Cincinnati after having a gallery in New York for 10 years,” he explains. “Carl often assists artists in having works fabricated, and my $1,200 rent in Brooklyn was killing me, so when he offered me a studio, I decided to move there. I really love it: Money goes further, I was able to buy a house, I love having a car, and I can concentrate on my work more.

“The Midwest is the metal heartland, and I love it because of that too,” adds Otterson, whose forearm is tattooed with a wrench in memory of his father, who died of a heart attack when the artist was in high school.

Otterson’s interest in American culture centers for the most part on the domestic environment. “I’m interested in the things we need around us in order to live--refrigerators, tables, beds--and in the emotions we attach to inanimate objects. I’m also curious as to why there’s a market for fake Chippendale furniture, for instance. Do people think they’ll live like kings and queens if they surround themselves with knock-offs of furniture once owned by royalty?

“In a sense, I’m parodying domesticity by creating new combinations--a sofa that’s also a bathtub and a fish bowl,” he adds. “Some people use these pieces as furniture, and I intend that they be functional; however, I’m not a furniture-maker. What makes these objects art rather than furniture is the fact that they have a text, and there’s more to be said about them than that they’re comfortable and functional. There are more layers to art.”

As for how his work is evolving, Otterson says: “I’m slowly working my way through the house, and what I’d like to do next is design an entire space. I’m also done with disco and want to deal with ‘80s music--stuff like Adam Ant, Culture Club and Duran Duran.

“I’m fascinated by the genealogy of heavy metal,” he says, settling into a favorite subject. “What made Guns N’ Roses great is that they’re the perfect combination of all the rock bands that preceded them; they’re totally a product of Led Zeppelin, which was the most influential band ever . I dismiss the Beatles--they bore me. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Top 10 heavy metal, bands like Metallica and Danzig.

“And a few weeks ago I saw the Stones. It was like seeing Jesus,” he declares solemnly.

* Joel Otterson’s work is at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., No. B1, Santa Monica. Through Nov. 7. (310) 453-7535.