Bill Tonnesen wants you to be offended. Shocked. Angry.
The Phoenix-based landscape architect and artist wants some outrage.
Otherwise, his work would be for naught.
Tonnesen has created a pair of statues — torsos of nude women jutting out of a tower of truck tires — that sit in front of an apartment building at 2230 E. Fort Lowell Road.
In Phoenix, Tonnesen is a bit of a bad boy. Some of his large-scale pieces, often in prominent spots at apartment buildings, are in-your-face nudes. One, an obese nude woman sitting on a wall, faces a church. Another nude — it looks to be of the same large model — holding a urinal at her crotch (presumably an homage to Duchamp) is on display at the front of an apartment building not far from the Phoenix Art Museum. Protests to the works were loud.
Tonnesen, who solicits publicity, loves the controversy his art creates.
And he’s hoping the Fort Lowell Road project, his first in Tucson, does the same.
“I believe it’s my First Amendment right,” Tonnesen says in an interview while preparing for the “unveiling of the statues,” which took place Monday evening.
“It’s not violent or obscene.”
That no one seemed to be objecting to his right is not an issue.
He assumes the reactions will come from the nudity. And he references art history as an explanation and justification.
Nudity has played a big role in art over the ages, he says. “It’s natural.”
He expects controversy to follow the works not just because that’s what he craves. It’s because that’s what he gets at home.
“My wife thinks my works are egotistical and gratuitous, and that I’m just trying to get attention,” he says. “My wife doesn’t like them at all. She’s very Catholic and very conservative.”
Does he think they are gratuitous?
Tonnesen hems and haws, speaks about Apple founder Steve Jobs’ design integrity (don’t ask), Playboy magazine and his love of art. But, he acknowledges, he just can’t answer that question. He isn’t sure the nudity is gratuitous.
Tonnesen calls the works, molded from a live model and made primarily of plaster and epoxy with a steel frame, “Domestic Totems.”
Two female torsos sit on top of 11 gleaming black tires, raising the works up to about 16 feet, nearly reaching the top of the second story of the two-story building.
The torsos are white. Each has large, exposed breasts.
The figures are draped with a shawl and have headpieces made of pots, pans, dishes and other accoutrements of domesticity. One has an electric hand beater as a necklace, a mop covering her eyes as though they are long bangs, a baby sitting on top of the headpiece, and a mouselike figurine on top of that. The woman’s mouth is opened in a sort of shocked “O.”
The other is blindfolded and gagged, has an egg beater necklace, a toaster balancing on her head, and on top of that a lamp, and on top of that, another mouse-like figurine.
“I’m so enthusiastic about these guys,” says Tonnesen.
Don’t read too much into the blindfold and mop covering the eyes. His message isn’t women going forth blindly into blessed domesticity.
“The mold on the model caved in,” says Tonnesen. The mop and blindfold are “used to cover up the blemishes.”
The design was initially inspired by the random shopping carts that peppered the apartment building property when Tonnessen first began landscape work on it a few months ago. That idea evolved to what sits there now.
“It’s home,” he says when asked what the figures represent. “What’s going on in that home.”
Make no mistake: This is not art for art’s sake.
“I look at the traffic out front,” Tonnesen says. “The point in doing it is to create a place in the community that is a reference point. … The first purpose is to bring attention to the apartments.”
Tonnesen has a small equity interest in the property, which was purchased earlier this year by California Capital Real Estate Advisors, based in Pasadena. The company flips real estate. Tonnesen was brought on board to spiff up the landscaping at the 58-apartment complex, now called the Fort Lowell Apartments, a name change from Catalina Apartments.
“I was a little bit shocked at first,” says Josh Holman, a senior vice president with the company. “But then I looked at it in more detail and saw what I thought he was trying to express with the work. Then I got it and I thought it was cool.”
OK, we’ll bite. What is he trying to express with the work?
“It’s a statement about how women are perceived,” says Holman. “It’s a modern version of a totem pole.”
Besides, he adds, “You have to find a way to be unique.”
Monday night, after the unveiling, the statues stood tight against the building with lights shining on them. The white sculptures were washed out by the lights — nobody could see enough detail to object to it.
During the day, the whiteness of the torsos blends in with the white apartment building. They are hardly noticeable.
But the folks who live there have noticed. “I don’t like them,” says Lexi Campbell, who has been there about a year.
“I’m not offended,” she added, “I just wish they were pretty.”
“My grandson doesn’t like them; he thinks they’re nasty,” says Marybeth Davis, who lives there with him. She, on the other hand, has no problem with the bare breasts. It’s the works themselves that bother her.
“I don’t call them art,” she says. “I call them gaudy.”