If the impulse driving Joel Otterson’s work could be reduced to an aphorism on a stitched sampler—a form that, in fact, inspires him—it might read: “Domestic does not necessarily mean domesticated.” Otterson gravitates toward materials and methods that have staid reputations as “feminine” pursuits or are compromised by associations with craft, the decorative or the functional furnishings of the everyday. He celebrates them, untames them. He reimagines quilts and beadwork, chandeliers, tables and screens, releasing them from convention to revel in new configurations teeming with irreverence, buoyant with excess.
“Needleworks,” the title of this engrossing show, referred to the two bodies of work on view: a 2014-15 series of panels ornately stitched with various beads and other materials, and a 2015 group of handblown glass vessels, titled “Flesh Cups,” adorned with crisp enamel graphics. The latter have a prickly charm. Their elegance, vaguely Venetian, is crossed with crudeness. Each of the roughly foot-high containers bears a smattering of symbols, many taken directly from the lexicon of Russian prison tattoos: roses in handcuffs; women performing oral sex on hairy devils; a bomb with a lit fuse; wreathed crosses; Eve raising an apple in one hand and, in the other, the head of the snake, which entwines her naked body. The tattoo images are deeply coded designations of rank within the criminal hierarchy that render the skin a rap sheet of offenses and oppositional stances. Some are forcibly applied and brand their bearers as informers or homosexuals.
The L.A.-based Otterson embeds the cups with clues to personal identity as well—a crown whose points spell out “QUEER,” for instance, or the rendering of an early hero, David Bowie, in the guise of Ziggy Stardust. Complex conflations and rich contradictions abound. As skillfully wrought luxury objects, such glass works might confer high status upon their owners, but here they double as renegade bodies marked by indicators of both pride and shame, the tattoo designs in some cases originally etched into flesh in ballpoint-pen ink or soot mixed with urine. These works snarl beneath their refined smiles.
Less overtly charged but just as visually absorbing are the wood panels sheathed in fabric or Persian rugs, which are encrusted with sequins, glass, plastic, ceramic, buckles and buttons. Titles key the works to music, color or both. Cadenza in Pink is among the most politely exuberant, a floral and paisley concoction spiked with glittering, pearlescent beads. Pattern and Decoration meets home handicraft with a loving, full-body hug. In Fuga Arcobaleno (“rainbow fugue,” in Italian), geometric shapes on a carpet peek out beneath draped strands of beads and affixed objects, including a Lego car, chunks of coral and ceramic leaves with iridescent glaze.
In these works, Otterson achieves a kind of raucous rococo, born largely out of the flotsam that sinks to the bottom of a sewing basket. They exude an unstable and unapologetic jubilance, an outsider-ish fearlessness of extremes. Grayson Perry comes to mind, and also Jeffry Mitchell, defiant declaimers all, and upholders of delight.