Review: John Otterbridge

Octogenarian John Outterbridge, who had a distinguished career in arts administration at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) and the Watts Towers Arts Center, is best known for his poignant assemblages that meld reminders of American slavery with reflections on family and personal history. His recent show “Rag Man” focused primarily on works made between 2008 and 2012.

In the front gallery, a dozen or so assemblages fashioned from reclaimed materials such as worn wood, rusty iron and faded rags were displayed on two adjacent walls painted a warm goldenrod. The first piece one encountered, I Mus Speak (2008), is a veritable self-portrait, with tangled human dreadlocks topping off an angular metal form that resembles a convoluted Cubist visage. A small American flag—a fraught symbol for a loyal U.S. citizen often subjected to second-class treatment because of his race—hangs from below like a badge. Caged (2008) conveys a similar ambivalence. A small wooden doll sits within a structure reminiscent of a hamster wheel made from twigs and bound by rag strips. The caged doll’s smile is droll yet grim.

Born in Greenville, N.C., in 1933, Outterbridge was first influenced by his father, who ran a mobile junkyard out of the back of his truck, and his mother, who played the piano, wrote poetry, made quilts and provided her son with used materials. In the early ’70s, Outterbridge worked as an educator and installer in California, meeting artists such as Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg and Mark di Suvero (whose studio and machinery he sometimes borrowed).

Placed on a pedestal, Case in Point (1970) comes from Outterbridge’s experience returning home from the Air Force. Brown sausagelike forms, wrapped into a bundle with army-issue canvas, bear a vintage luggage tag that reads “packages travel like people.” In 1955, as he recounted to the Los Angeles Times some 50 years later, Outterbridge boarded a bus in full military uniform and was ordered by the driver to go to the back of the vehicle. He complied, then sat down and wept. For the artist, and for countless other African-Americans with similar experiences, the transport slogan is an ironic reminder that the inverse is often true—some people travel like cargo.

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