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My library locker is right next to the ceramics section, and while browsing recently I stumbled onto a book about Howard Kottler.  He was a ceramic artist working in the sixties and seventies on the west coast and was influenced by and worked with seminal west coast artists like Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson.  Kottler uses mass produced ceramic plates instead of throwing his own.  He didn’t want to comment on the plate as an object, but focused on exploring social and political commentary through altered decals of famous images.

Colonial Rockettes (1967)

The title of this post refers to a quote by Patricia McDonnell in an essay on Marsden Hartley to describe how he simultaneously addressed and dodged his homosexuality in his paintings.  Kottler was not a child of the free love 1960s, he was a product of the great depression and World War II.  Like gay artists of that time (Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg), Kottler uses coded references to queer culture in his work.  His plates are whimsical and entirely palatable to a mainstream audience, but simultaneously subversive and loaded with meaning and symbolism.  In Colonial Rockettes every man essentially kick the man in front of him, a funny composite of a colonial image and a modern image but also a big gay orgy (of sorts).

Signals (1967-1972)

In Signals, he took a decal of The Last Supper and cut out only the hands of the figures and a circular border.  The phantom hands float on the plate and bring attention to a part of the painting you might not have noticed before.  Those hands also connote hand gestures that indicate sexual preferences within the gay community.  Like Signals, Sign Language Kottler repeats a hand, removing fingers to that only the outstretched pinkie is left — a gesture connoting effeminate men.  I love that  someone’s super conservative family could be eating their supper off these plates.  Outwardly they are visually captivating and there is a clear thematic idea, whether or not they know what it is.

Twins (c. 1970)

The series that I most like is based on two paintings: The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough and Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence.  Kottler repeats The Blue Boy, cuts him up, reassembles him in different order, changes his size.  In Twins he pairs Pinkie and Blue Boy, but both have Blue Boy’s head.  It’s beautiful and goofy, but also picture of effeminate gay men.

I like artists that explore identity and intersecting experiences, and I especially like that Kottler does that using images from art history.  I also like the idea of putting things that are super gay under the noses of people who don’t get it.  Not all of Howard Kottler’s places are subtle, but the ones I like best use finely tuned visual interest to stir up more interesting questions about sexuality and queer culture.

The book, called Look Alikes: The Decal Plates of Howard Kottler, was part of the Tacoma Art Museum‘s Northwest Perspectives series.  The other book referenced is Dictated by Life: Marsden Hartley’s German Paintings And Robert Indiana’s Hartley Elegies written by Patricia McDonnell.