Artist Presentation
Susan Otto: How do You Think a Girl Like Me Got to Be a Girl Like Me?



Synopsis by Dania Pettus



Susan Otto began her lecture with the statement that she was trying to problemitize image and text. Her presentation focused on her use of text in a more interesting and poetic nature. Otto called on new ways to think about language as opposed to description or captioning. She showed us work in which she transforms text into a visual form by using unusual text and letting the image create its own text.

Otto started with slides illustrating how images can create their own text. Her slides included magazine covers that featured images of woman and signs found on the street. One sign, found in Southern California, showed three people running in one direction. This road sign was meant to be a warning that immigrants cross the highway at this point, so the narrative constructs itself without text. Another slide was of a sign found in Ireland with a picture of a man and the words, ‘Free Pat Kelly.’ Here an image is used to empower the text. There was also a photograph of Otto’s capturing the scene of an unmade bed. Pink tissues were littered over the bed and floor. She used the image to create conversations and to raise questions about the meaning of the photograph.

In a series of photographs titled, She Watches Too Much Television, Otto shows us her response to the violence she sees and feels in LA She talked about the gun as an image standing in for the text of fear, paranoia and the irrationality of the climate in LA at that time. She Watches Too Much Television was an installation made up of a gun wall, a snapshot wall, and a LA Times front-page wall. The piece was surrounded by small spiral note pads on which words and lists were written, such as a grocery list. On some of the other note pads, Otto wrote symptoms of pregnancy and symptoms of depression.

Reptile Experiment #1 is a further example of Otto’s work with images that can create their own text. In this project, Otto asked men to draw a picture of a snake, labeling the picture with the man's first name, occupation and age.

Otto also talked about the use of text that is unusual and outside the mundane of the everyday. Here Otto showed us slides of everyday text that, by nature of its placement, becomes something more. A sign found in her mother's home saying ‘Happy Birthday, Susan’ was placed over a picture of Jesus. Otto also referred to magazine covers, pointing out the text used. On one magazine a picture of Courtney Love appears. The accompanying text is ‘Courtney with Seller, Bitch, Killer. But will Courtney Love have the last laugh?’ Otto compared this cover to another from Elle magazine, pointing out that the text is more than just advertising for the magazine; in fact, the text is selling an idea about women today.

Otto then showed us how text is transformed into a visual form. In She Watches too Much Television, Otto took the front page of the LA Times over a one-month period looking for text and images in which women were the subject. She then blacked out all the images and text that did not have women as subject. As a result of this project, Otto concluded that women are never on the front page of the LA Times unless they fall into one of three categories: a Hollywood artist, preferably old and /or dead; a women as a victim of violence; or, a woman in or seeking political office.

Otto is very strong in her belief that as artists it is our responsibility to participate in the discourse about art. We must write about what we know and do and should not leave the conversations up to those who don't create or know much about art.



Analysis by Melanie Schiff



Susan Otto began her presentation with the intention of examining the idea of image and text. She initially talked of using text that is more structural and poetic than documentary. She then introduced the idea of text and image in commercial and public use, which was an interesting preface for looking at text and image in contemporary art. Otto's presentation deal with the idea that there are numerous ways of combining text and image that are more interesting than the traditional way of illustrating or narrating. To demonstrate this she showed examples which can be found or created.

The first image she showed looked like a snapshot of a handmade ‘Happy Birthday Susan’ sign arching over a kitchy 60s rendering of Jesus, which showed that even the unintentional combining of image and text could be both powerful and absurd. The next set of images are far more controversial. Otto compared three magazine covers: one showing the musician/actress Courtney Love; the other had tough, sexy, and barely clothed, female rapper Foxy Brown; and the third showed a nondescript fashion model. Both magazines with the musicians on the cover were paired with text that highlighted what these women's image represent: next to Courtney Love are the words, ‘bitch,’ ‘killer,’ and ‘ultimate sneaky horrible female’ -- negative press that have essentially made her famous; while next to Foxy Brown was the quote, Sex Sells: What's Wrong with Being Strong. The third image of the fashion model was surrounded by typical woman magazine text about softness and romance, which was in direct opposition to the popular culture icons of Courtney Love and Foxy Brown. Otto then talked about what happens when text and image are used by the public in a non-commercial way. She showed a Xerox flyer that was posted all over Ireland with a picture of IRA member Pat Kelly and the text, ‘Free Pat Kelly’. Otto used this example to show her idea that there are powerful ways image and text exist in the public sphere, and perhaps they are more important than what exists in the realm of art.

Susan Otto makes art about imagery and text that circulates in the public sphere. In one piece she takes the front page of the LA Times and masks everything that does not include women as the subject. The result is very grim. The only time that a woman is used as subject is as a Hollywood actress, a victim of violence, or in political office. There is not necessarily anything wrong with the categories, but what is upsetting is the lack of presence that women have on the front page of a major newspaper. This work has roots in both psychoanalytic theory and structuralism.

Susan Otto approaches these issues through a variety of methods using image and text. She showed a series of photographs and text that are part of her installation, She Watches Too Much Television. She created this piece in response to the violence of the Los Angles riots. On one wall she placed a gun surrounded by note pads listing items such as grocery lists, symptoms of pregnancy, symptoms of depressions, stories of women who suffered violence, and one that was left blank. These lists invoke what Otto refers to as women's language. These words, even in a list form, create narratives (such as domesticity and violence against women) that have a strong history of powerful imagery. Otto asserts that she uses the gun to stand in for text such as paranoia, irrationality, and fear. Much of her work deals with the use of words as symbols and symbols as language.

A small amount of information can be very telling about a person. Susan Otto proves this in her satirical piece, Reptile Experiment #1. She asked a large, diverse group of men their first name, age, occupation.

Susan Otto has numerous approaches for using image and text in her artwork. She is clearly concerned with art and art making. One of the stronger messages in her presentation was a call to action for artists to take responsibility to be active participants in the discourse surrounding art by writing about art, arguing that artist must be a part of this dialogue.