The outlier artist known as A. Bitterman is spending the summer on an island – in Indiana.
Most businesses in the East Crossroads closed hours ago, but on a balmy Monday night in June, the garage door at Meya Metalworks is still open. There’s a U-Haul parked outside on 16th Street, and two men are dragging what appears to be the gate of a human-sized possum trap onto the truck.
It’s less than 24 hours before the artist who calls himself A. Bitterman hits Interstate 70 in the U-Haul and heads east. And while his itinerary doesn’t include hunting, it does call for something akin to camping. The Indianapolis Museum of Art has awarded Bitterman this summer’s Indy Island residency; in a project he calls Indigenous, the artist plans to run wild on the museum’s wooded grounds for six weeks.
The brochure he has produced for the IMA explains the residency this way: “A. Bitterman, an artist we know little or nothing about, has been released into the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. He has assumed a temporary residence on the island and will be ranging throughout the park in June and July.”
Imagine the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art sharing DNA with Shawnee Mission Park and you’ll get a rough picture of the Art and Nature Park, which Hoosiers call the 100 Acres. Oxbow Lake, the body of water surrounding Indy Island, sits in the middle of the park, and the White River also borders it.
Lisa Freiman, IMA’s senior curator of contemporary art (who selected Bitterman for the residency), has studded the park with pieces by internationally acclaimed contemporary artists, including Andrea Zittel’s “Indianapolis Island,” an inhabitable floating sculpture resembling an igloo with a porthole on top. Zittel earned accolades in the 1990s for sculptural works that examined domestic space. She designed the island as a temporary home for artists who would interact with park visitors. Over the past two summers, Indy Island residents took members of the general public on rowboat excursions, attempted to lower E. coli levels in the lake water, and led riverside yoga sessions.
Bitterman has something different in mind. That’s where the human-sized possum trap comes into play.
A. Bitterman the artist is Pete Cowdin, who runs the Brookside children’s bookstore Reading Reptile with his wife, Deborah Pettid. The couple live with their five children and a cat in a modest, two-story house in Armour Hills dominated by bookshelves and materials for Bitterman projects.
On the day he showed The Pitch around their home, Cowdin wore his usual gray baseball cap (emblazoned with the toothy grin of Totoro, from the Hayao Miyazaki anime classic My Neighbor Totoro) and spoke in his usual opinion-intensive staccato. A week before his departure for Indianapolis, the two front rooms of the house served as makeshift studios. Most of a room that appeared to serve as a home office was occupied by wooden panels for a lakeside informational kiosk. Boxes holding spotting scopes and a coin-operated candy dispenser sat in corners of the adjacent room.
Last summer’s large-scale Bitterman work was an installation mimicking a national park. The exhibit, titled Point of Interest, was in the Cowdin family’s front yard. Its centerpiece was a wooden panel with illustrations of resident fauna, a map of stratigraphic rock formations, and an outline of the 4.6-billion-year history of the site. The 0.17-mile “Upper Lawn View Trail” took visitors around the front yard, past a picnic table and a tubular sculpture labeled “Cloud gazer.” The audience was largely made up of neighbors and passers-by out for a stroll or a jog.
Point of Interest aimed to point out the disconnect between our daily lives and our notions of nature. “Sometimes we travel long distances so that we can be in nature,” read some of Bitterman’s text on a metal plaque in the installation. “We confuse nature for the natural world, and this has generated a kind of madness.” The front-yard national-park exhibit suggested that nature is a place we inhabit, not a place we visit.
Cory Imig, who helps run Plug Projects, an artist-run space in the West Bottoms, met Cowdin during a visit to Point of Interest.
“I signed up for a Back Country Permit, which, upon approval, granted me time in his backyard,” Imig explains, recalling one of the installation’s nods to national-park bureaucracy. “I invited several friends with me, and we hung out, drank wine and had a picnic.”
Point of Interest received a Rocket Grant, funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and administered locally by the Charlotte Street Foundation and the University of Kansas’ Spencer Museum of Art. Grant coordinator and artist Julia Cole says Cowdin’s application — signed as Bitterman — immediately appealed to the selection committee.
“Looking back through previous years, Pete’s application seemed so well thought out, so targeted to a specific community in a thoughtful and generous way. It was humorous. It sunk its teeth into an interesting idea. It fit the opportunity extremely well.”
But Cole, who worked as a pattern-formation scientist before becoming an artist, doesn’t see eye to eye with the resulting work’s position on nature.
“In asserting that people are part of nature, which I agree with, he then seems to extrapolate a view in which all the degradation, reduction in diversity, system collapse, etc., is kind of a natural outcome of the fact that we are one element of the natural world and behaving according to our nature. For myself, I see the capacity and will of humans to resist, create more integrative solutions and then build them — kind of an art practice — as also part of nature.”
Of course, there’s a reason that Cowdin has chosen Bitterman as his pseudonym. And this wouldn’t have been a Bitterman project without a little of that persona’s sourness.
Alongside Point of Interest, Bitterman also exhibited a piece titled “Lot 18” at the Subterranean Gallery last year.
Clayton Skidmore and Ayla Rexroth run Subterranean out of their basement apartment. Skidmore met Cowdin when the artist shopped at the now-defunct SRO Video, where Skidmore worked.
“I first got to know Pete because he was a smartass. He would give me trouble about [removing his] late fees.”
When Skidmore introduced Cowdin to Rexroth at a December 2010 lecture at the Nelson-Atkins, the artist immediately asked to show at the Subterranean Gallery. Rexroth agreed.
Cowdin had big plans for the small space. He had hired aerial photographer Jon Blumb to shoot from a low-flying airplane while the artist was lying on the roof of his house, naked. Cowdin exhibited the resulting video and still images in “Lot 18.” He also hired a roofer who built, along with Rexroth, a rooflike structure, complete with shingles, in one corner of the basement gallery. Visitors could lie on the roof, assuming the same pose as Cowdin in the photo shoot, and look at transparencies installed on the ceiling.
“Lot 18” made sly references to “land art,” a movement in the 1960s and ’70s in which artists used materials such as dirt and rocks to make monumental sculptures in hard-to-reach, unpopulated areas. Often, these works could be witnessed only through photographs. Bitterman used the Cowdin family home — a tiny suburban plot — to enact his own version of land art.
Bitterman’s “Lot 18” exceeded Rexroth’s expectations. “I don’t feel like there is a huge amount of artists in this city who invest in their studio practice on a level that they rent a plane,” she says.
Rexroth, who works primarily with emerging artists, says she has learned from observing Cowdin as a businessman.
“I didn’t realize how artists were working collaboratively with businesses and institutions,” she says. “We’ve become barterers and traders more. We’re learning how to use our value to our advantage in the community while helping others and building relationships.”
As cranky, authority-questioning Bitterman, Cowdin has in fact become a touchstone for young local artists like those Rexroth curates at Subterreanean. The Charlotte Street Foundation selected him as a mentor artist for Urban Culture Project studio resident Andrew Erdrich.
“We were skeptical of being assigned someone,” Erdrich says. “Because we were both skeptical, things started off on the right foot.”
The two have become friends, and Cowdin enlisted Erdrich’s help in transporting his work to Indianapolis.
After her visit to Point of Interest, Imig dropped by the Reading Reptile one day, hoping to chat about art.
“We started talking about some of the work he was working on and some of my past work, and all of a sudden we were bouncing ideas off one another left and right. We decided we should attempt to collaborate on a project and see if we could make it work.”
The two hope to curate a selection of artwork to install in a grocery store — pending the cooperation of a grocer.
Sean Starowitz, who runs Bread KC along with Erdrich, is in talks with Cowdin about collaborating on a project that focuses on abandoned properties in Kansas City. As a Kansas City Art Institute student, Starowitz heard a rumor about a local artist who had been kicked out of the graduate program at Cranbrook Academy of Art for destroying an Eliel Saarinen chair.
The story was about Cowdin, the perfect legend to inform the Bitterman character. (And it’s true.)
Starowitz says he admires the older artist’s dedication to maintaining his voice.
“He runs the Reading Reptile and has a family,” he says. “He lives this double life. In school, you’re told you shouldn’t have a family. And Pete’s done that. He’s gone against the institutional ideas of what makes success.”
Cowdin took an unconventional path to become Bitterman. He studied studio art at Carleton College in Minnesota, then attended Cranbrook, from which he was indeed expelled in 1987, after an art project that involved — yes — the deconstruction of lunchroom chairs designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. Thus began a 20-year gap in creating art.
It was a banana that ended the dry spell.
In 2007, Cowdin and Pettid made and installed a gigantic papier-mâché banana outside the Folly Theater that was rendered to look as though it were crashing through the historic building’s façade. “Staying the Course” was part of that year’s Avenue of the Arts series, and it marked a reversal of what Cowdin says was a conscious choice to set aside his art making.
“For me, making art has always been a little dangerous, emotionally speaking,” he says. “When I’m doing it, I don’t fuck around, and that can make me a little crazy — sometimes a lot crazy. I know this, and I knew it would not be a good thing to pursue when the kids were younger. So I didn’t.”
Cowdin, who started working at Reading Reptile in 1988, introduced A. Bitterman as a pen name for the children’s book reviews he wrote for the store.
“I liked the idea of disassociating my writing or art-making self from the bookstore and day-to-day stuff mostly because I don’t like to talk about what I make in that context,” he says. “Of course, my friends and family know what I’m doing, but in general, I don’t like to link the two — mainly because if someone knows you as one thing, they don’t take the other thing seriously.”
In the early 1990s, Cowdin also studied geology at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. In a lab there, he met Don Wilkison, a fellow geology student. Wilkison didn’t know about Bitterman until he visited a book sale at his daughter’s middle school.
“As I was walking though the parking lot, I saw a Jeep Grand Cherokee with this weird-ass painting on it that said, ‘Is this a burning flag or a penis?'” Wilkison says. “I thought to myself, I don’t know who owns that but I need to meet this person.”
Their resulting friendship, he explains, owes much to their willingness to be brutally honest with each other. “It’s the kind of brother relationship where you have this parry back and forth,” Wilkison says. “It’s well-intentioned, but we’re not afraid to say to each other, ‘You’re full of shit.’ “
Wilkison makes art under his own assumed persona, “Minister of Information.” Last year, he surreptitiously planted a tree in the shadow of “Ferment,” Roxy Paine’s metal-tree sculpture on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He called the work “Tree for Roxy Paine.” Eventually the museum yanked it out.
In a March 2012 issue of the San Francisco-based art publication Art Practical, which was devoted to Kansas City, Bitterman submitted an essay about his friend’s tree. He withdrew it at the last minute, though, because he believed that the publication’s editing had changed the voice and meaning of the piece.
That, Wilkison says, was just Bitterman standing his ground.
“He’s willing to put himself on the line when he really believes something. If you look at his work and spend some time with him, you’ll understand that.
“Some people say he’s difficult to work with,” Wilkison adds. “I don’t necessarily agree with that. Pete can be an asshole, sure. I can be an asshole. We can all be assholes.”
There’s also history between the Nelson-Atkins and Bitterman. For the 2010 work “Wal-Mart: A. Bitterman vs. Stephen Holl,” Bitterman constructed a Masonite-and-foam replica of a Wal-Mart sign, then rounded up volunteers to gather on the museum lawn on a Sunday morning to hold the Wal-Mart sign up against the Bloch Building as Blumb snapped pictures.
Cowdin says people saw the project as a criticism of the museum, but that wasn’t his intention. It was merely an impulse he wanted to fulfill.
“Wal-Mart is so loaded,” he says. “It’s a million things, and it’s heavy. It’s infused with layers of hatred and love. The museum, too, is completely loaded. It’s a Stephen Holl building — it’s precious.”
The artist mailed photographic prints of the happening to the museum.
Jan Schall, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nelson-Atkins, describes the photographs as “well seen and well made.” The prints remain in the museum archives; unsolicited artworks, Schall explains, can’t become part of the collection.
In Indianapolis, Cowdin is adjusting to working with a museum staff rather than installing his work guerrilla-style, during off hours. Two weeks into his residency, though, he has encountered a classic jungle-fighter problem. The fictional Bitterman is covered with a real poison-ivy rash.
He’s unfazed (though he’s not sleeping on the island — the IMA provides air-conditioned quarters with a real bed).
“People really like the cage in general,” Cowdin says. “I can tell.”
The possum trap is integral to the narrative he has constructed around Bitterman’s residency: An artist has been released into the wild, free to interact — and mess with the heads of — park visitors. He has placed an easy chair, a TV and a mini refrigerator in the far end of the cage, signs of the artist’s former, domesticated life.
Amanda York, the IMA curatorial assistant assigned to Bitterman’s project, explains that audience interaction is key to Indigenous.
“Bitterman will be present throughout 100 Acres and may interact with visitors who approach him using the language of hand gestures he’s created,” she says. “There’s also a GPS tracker online [imamuseum.org/island2012] that reports where Bitterman is in real time, so park visitors can be aware of his exact location and use Twitter or Instagram to post a picture of him in his habitat. Additionally, people can feed the artists by using the nut dispenser installed in the park, leaving food in the park and clues as to where it may be online, and attend screenings of films created by Bitterman on the island.”
For the less digitally inclined, there are old-school viewing stations installed in two locations around the lake — spotting scopes able to zoom in on the island for a closer look.
Then there’s Bitterman’s “area of unmediated flux,” his phrase for the part of a dirt path he has lined with taxidermic animals (including a jackrabbit, a possum and a squirrel).
He has revived some of the same tools and strategies he used in his front yard, but on a much larger scale. There’s a kiosk near the lake with the kinds of historic and geological information familiar from Point of Interest. And the six-week Bitterman occupation of this wooded space calls similar attention to connections shared by humans, nature and art.
“There’s a notion that our built environment is somehow exempt from the natural world — emotionally, politically, physically,” Cowdin says. “Accordingly, nature becomes a place we visit. Art is the same way. People go to visit art. They keep it separate. Art is at a place you go visit.”
And the IMA’s 100 Acres is, he knows, a built environment, a presentation of nature, dressed up for human consumption, on the grounds of an art museum. His point is to draw attention to all of this, not to criticize it. “You might think I’m bagging on it, but no. That’s not what I’m trying to do.”
So far, Bitterman has attracted visitors from outside the human part of the animal kingdom. Erdrich, who traveled to the museum to help with the installation, reports that the island is full of spiders. And a heron had already taken up residence on the sculpture.
“It just sits on it and shits there,” Cowdin says with a Bitterman laugh. “I promised all the museum people that I would kill and roast it.”