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He has an outsize sense of humor

Eight whimsical sculptures by Tom Otterness swap jokes in Beverly Hills.

October 27, 2005|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

ARTIST Tom Otterness, known for outsize bronze public sculptures of whimsical human and animal figures, is taking his troops to Beverly Hills.

"Tom Otterness in Beverly Hills," a group of eight sculptures, is being installed this week on the lawn in front of Beverly Hills City Hall, 450 N. Crescent Drive. It's the latest phase in a traveling public art project that began in New York City.

"I like to think of them as this row of tanks attacking these different cities, just sort of rumbling along," the New York-based artist said in an interview earlier this week.

The exhibition, which opens officially in mid-November and is slated to run through mid-April, includes "Big Big Penny," a giant penny topped with two champagne drinkers being pushed by laborers; "Large Covered Wagon," a freaky family on vacation in a covered wagon; and "See No Evil," Otterness' take on the oft-represented three figures covering ears, eyes and mouth.

The 53-year-old New York artist said he hopes the pieces, ranging in height from 6 to 12 feet, will make passers-by think a little -- and, more important, smile.

"I kind of wince when people call my work 'whimsical,' but it's accurate, it's true -- they're funny, although it's got a little edge underneath there too," Otterness said earlier this week in an interview from his native state of Kansas, where he was vacationing. "It's part of making public art accessible. Humor is the universal language."

The sculptures represent a subset of 25 pieces that were spread over five miles of Broadway in Manhattan from September 2004 to March 2005. The works were then scattered throughout Indianapolis from April to October before being trucked to Beverly Hills. Only eight pieces are in the Beverly Hills display because of the size of the space.

Otterness said the project has no overarching theme but noted that money is a recurring through-line in his work.

"I've heard a rumor that people really like money in Beverly Hills," he said with a laugh. "The work takes on a lot of meaning from the context. Of course 'See No Evil' is going to make sense in front of any city hall."

He said that the government officials, lawyers, wealthy people and other establishment figures he tends to skewer usually take it with a sense of humor. "They usually think the joke's on somebody else -- 'I've got a friend who's just like that,' 'I work for a guy who looks like that,' " he said.

Even so, his work is no stranger to controversy.

In the early 1990s, Otterness stirred up a ruckus in Los Angeles with "The New World," an anatomically correct nude woman and baby that were placed outside the federal building downtown. The sculptures were called obscene by a judge and removed -- but won a reprieve and were later reinstated behind a protective railing.

The current touring collection contains no nudes, and Otterness said some of them could find permanent homes in the towns they visit. He said Indianapolis is negotiating to permanently install one and that he's open to similar arrangements elsewhere, although he'd like for the bulk of the collection to continue traveling.

"We'll keep it moving, I hope," he said.

Although the traveling exhibition has been strictly earthbound, another piece by Otterness will soon take to the air: He was invited to design a giant balloon of Humpty Dumpty, 35 feet in diameter, scheduled to float in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

"They did a Humpty Dumpty in the 1920s that I liked a lot," he said. "We talked about him sitting on a wall, and then I sort of slapped my forehead and said: 'Oh, upside down -- he's in the middle of falling.' He's a bright yellow egg in a red business suit and shoes, with his hat falling off."

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