Otterness is one of those sculptors over whom the art world's cognoscenti fawn while the bourgeois citizens shake their heads and mutter "what the hell....?" He became notorious years ago for a work of "performance art" called Shot Dog Piece which just defeats any attempt at mockery:
At a New York gallery showing in 2007 called The Public Unconscious, self-loathing American art patrons were all a-buzz about his sculpture Large Consumer:
Early on in the career of sculptor Tom Otterness, he was just another struggling young artist here in Manhattan trying to make it. In the era of the ever-escalating shock value and competitive one-upsmanship of his time — Christopher Burden’s getting shot on camera certainly comes to mind — one of Otterness‘ early pieces involved the adoption of an innocent little mutt, which he then took home and shot dead with a rifle, filming it as it took its last breaths.
Large Consumer, the first sculpture to greet viewers as they enter the gallery, is an obscenely fat American that sits atop an overflowing bag of cash; dollar insignia imprinted not unlike what might be found on a designer handbag. It is a striking visualization of materialism at its worst: the dumb American who knows no limits or boundaries and has never had to answer for his actions. For him, “get out of jail free” is not just a Monopoly playing card, but a way of life. Otterness is sly in his reference to the character’s deep-throating an entire loading ramp — swallowing logging trucks, cigarettes, and oil barrels whole. Perhaps he had the legendary tome of over-saturation "Against Nature" by J.K. Huysmanns in mind when he created this piece.
Perhaps. Or perhaps he executed a juvenile Marxist metaphor that is so mind-numbingly literal it could have been done by a high school art class during Earth Hour.
But back to Immigrant Family. Otterness' style reminds me of those weird German Playmobil toys, which of course is his point. His artistic statement is made by juxtaposing a serious political issue with a childish toy-like appearance. So what does one take away from Immigrant Family ? Why, immigration is harmless and nothing to be feared, and if you're worried about the impact of immigration on your community, then you're hopelessly bourgeois, aren't you? Immigrants are all cartoon-like dolls who love babies and look like Laurel & Hardy. You just want to hug them and dress them up, and if you obsess about things like assimilation and ethnic tension, then you're just racist.
Compare and contrast Otterness' treatment of this theme with a sculpture by Louis Sanguino (1973) called The Immigrants, installed in New York City's Battery Park.
This sculpture conveys some of the true immigrant experience - the emotion, sacrifice, fear and hope that must be associated with being uprooted and starting a new life in a foreign land. It certainly doesn't suggest that immigrating to the New World is the equivalent of watching the balloons at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (which, incidently, Mr. Otterness once designed).