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CAR Artist Story

Angel Otero @ Chicago Cultural Center
Touch with Your Eyes: Recent Works
January 23, 2010 – March 28, 2010

Chicago Cultural Center

The proliferation of video, performance, photography, sound art and installation-based projects has put pressure on artists to become masters of many forms of media. It is therefore both surprising and refreshing to see a young artist confine his explorations to paint on canvas. Like other contemporary artists who choose to paint, Angel Otero understands he must come to terms with the conflicted, and sometimes burdensome, history of the genre while finding a way to move past it. His solution is to treat paint as a three dimensional object.

Certainly it is not unusual for artists to discard their brushes and treat paint sculpturally, particularly in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism. But what Otero does is mold this pliant medium to an armature crafted from his memories of growing up in Puerto Rico. For a School of the Art Institute-trained artist to shun dystopian visions, sexual obsessions and institutional critiques in favor of an introspective, even idiosyncratic, examination of his childhood is the most radical aspect of his work.

Otero’s methodology is both transparent and satisfying. He first applies layers of oil paint to a mirrored surface, then scrapes off these multi-hued strips and glues them to his canvases. Otero also squeezes blobs and sinewy lines of paint and silicone directly onto the canvas, generating a luxuriant surface encrusted with clumps, splotches, smears and wrinkled, shredded skins of paint sporting a range of shapes, sheens, thicknesses and textures. In some spots, the paint is like tissue or fabric. In other areas, the paint has the consistency of tar, melted gum, frosting, or even food scraped from a dinner plate. The artist’s accumulative process of construction corresponds to the recall of memories which, as time passes, become layered and reconfigured into something that only obliquely resemble their source.

Most of the paintings feature a single subject, typically a vase or pitcher set on a patterned tablecloth. The canvas or linen ground is almost always unprimed or painted a flat black, which serves to focus attention on the variegated clots, strips and skeins of paint. In two of the exhibit’s works—Untitled (Portrait of My Grandma’s Table) and Untitled (Portrait of My Grandma’s Couch)—Otero does away with the canvas altogether, reconfiguring his paint into a bona fide object that mingles freely with the other components in the assemblages. By weakening the boundary between subject and object, Otero liberates paint from its historical expectations and recalibrates our relationship to this chameleonic material.

10 Karat Still Life, one of the exhibit’s best works, provides a good example of how Otero arbitrates the divide between painting and sculpture, abstraction and representation, and past and present. The painting shows a flower-filled vase on a table draped with an elongated cloth. Vase, flowers and cloth are all created from shimmering skins of gold paint, making it difficult to distinguish among the elements until one is standing right in front of the work. Near the work’s center, the tiny pieces of oil skin, laid down in a mosaic pattern to define the tablecloth, shift from squares to parallelograms as the perspective of the table top shifts. Thick daubs of brightly colored paint peek out from under the gold squares, pushing sections of the tablecloth into the space of the viewer. Klimt’s lavish gold paintings immediately come to mind. But while Klimt’s opulence is enervating, Otero’s is elegiac: the gold vase could easily be interpreted as an urn. With its crumpled and desiccated oil skins, “10 Karat Still Life” appears exceedingly fragile, as if a waft of wind could scatter its parts.

As a group, these are moving paintings, their poignancy deepened by their presentation in the Cultural Center’s cavernous and gloomy Sidney Yates gallery. But if our ties to the past must inevitably fray with the passage of time, Otero seems to imply, we can at least seek solace in lovingly executed mementos.

(Published in Chicago Art Magazine, February 8, 2010)