Known for his often-humorous public sculptures and installations, Tom Otterness has created a distinctly individual oeuvre that often serves as a catalyst for greater understanding about the conversations that surround urban communities. “I think public art functions as a town square does,” he noted. “It’s an object through which people can talk to each other” (T. Otterness quoted in T. Loos, “A Fractured Fairy Tale Set on Broadway,” New York Times, New York, Sept. 12, 2004). Large Bear (2000) is a shining example of his work in monumental metal sculpture, and was part of his largest installation to date, Tom Otterness on Broadway (2004). As part of a selection of twenty-five bronzes chosen to populate Broadway in New York City, Large Bear and its cohorts stretched from Columbus Circle to 168th St. By carefully selecting each work’s placement, Otterness inspired viewers to question their surroundings and take into account the everyday environment they may have taken for granted.
Large Bear is a towering example of Otterness’s unique visual vocabulary. Given to creating stylized, cartoon-like figures and objects, the artist transcends the traditional role of bronze monuments to comment on societal issues and to activate the space around his work. Large Bear is nearly ten feet tall, and features a slump-shouldered ursine looking downward. It’s simply-rendered features are difficult to discern.
Is this a look of dejection or one of surprise? Otterness has instilled the smooth coat of bronze with a portliness that brings an air of friendliness to what would otherwise be an entirely frightening affair. This knack for creating figures that invite interaction, whether through a seeming familiarity or by nature of their placement in the everyday world, is precisely why Otterness has been asked to participate in so many public projects. He creates works with an entry point for those viewers unfamiliar with the art world or gallery culture.
A lifelong proponent of public art, Otterness was one of the founders of the artists’ cooperative titled Collaborative Projects, or Colab. Other artists working with him included Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, and John Ahearn, all whom have continued to push the bounds of the art exhibition space. “We were trying to get art out of the art world, out of the gallery world. A future in public art seemed a natural extension of that” (ibid.). By working with communities and public programs, Otterness has been able to install and highlight his works in various venues open to a wider audience. This interest in activating the site outside of the institution is something at which Otterness excels. Whether lining the busy streets of Manhattan with his creations or festooning the subway platform with characters rife with sociopolitical commentary, the artist continues to bring his work into the public eye for all to see.