Angel Otero’s Paintings of Absence

Angel Otero, who was born in Puerto Rico and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, first gained attention for his “oil skins” around a decade ago. 

By pouring paint onto glass or Plexiglas and leaving it to dry, he was able to peel off the skins and use them in different ways. They could be adhered to a surface, like a rumpled, ill-fitting sheet; cut up into different-sized blocks and collaged to make representational or abstract paintings; or cut into sections, collaged together, and hung on the wall. 

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Moving back and forth between these different styles, which were grounded in a particular, self-created method, Otero was both restless and in pursuit of something. I see this as rooted in his conception of identity. In an interview with Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic, Otero made the following statement: 

[…] culturally, I grew up in a very confusing environment: am I American or am I Puerto Rican? Am I Black, or am I Spanish, or am I Taino, or am I this, or am I that? I don’t think that art necessarily needs to give us an answer to these questions, but we all have the right to turn to art as an exit. To transform those questions into formal aspects.

Is it a confusion about identity that Otero feels or is it a recognition that there is no simple answer?

This thought kept returning to me as I walked around his current exhibition, Angel Otero: The Fortune of Having Been There, at Lehmann Maupin (January 28 – March 27, 2021). It consists of nine paintings that share certain domestic items: wooden chairs, rattan rocking chairs, tables, four-poster beds, dinghies, and claw-footed bathtubs. 

These works signaled both an extension and a radical shift from the artist’s “oil skins.” One thing that struck me, for an artist who previously has made work without using a brush, was that these pieces combined collage and painting. 

Angel Otero, “Idiot Prayer” (2021), 47.5 by 31.5 by 1.5 inches

The other thing that struck me was the imagery, which concerned water and disaster. And yet, as loaded as his subjects are — especially in light of the havoc that Hurricane Maria wreaked on Puerto Rico in 2017 (it is regarded as the worst natural disaster to overwhelm the island) — Otero’s paintings do not feel anecdotal. 

Rather, in paintings such as “Lucky Mirror” (oil paint and fabric collaged on canvas, 84 by 108 by 1.5 inches, 2020) and “Birdsong” (oil paint and fabric collaged on canvas, 84 by 94 by 1.5 inches, 2020), I felt as if I had come upon the aftermath of a turbulent event where the people have left. 

In “Birdsong,” a red wooden chair lies on its back — like a corpse — on a largely blue couch. One roll of toilet paper is perched on the back of the sofa, while another has unrolled across it onto the tiled linoleum floor. An orange birdcage sits in the left-hand corner, with a white cockatoo inside. What caused the chair to be where it is? What about the two rolls of toilet paper? Will someone come back for the bird? 

I like that Otero does not provide any answers, and that the scuffed and scratched tiles, with their non-repeating pattern, along with a patch of yellow peering through the blue couch, suggest this room and the things in it have had years of wear. This impression of use and wear adds to the sense that this was a slightly disheveled living room that suddenly had to be abandoned. 

In “Lucky Mirror” (oil paint and fabric collaged on canvas, 84 by 108 by 1.5 inches, 2020), two empty chairs face each other from opposite sides of a large table, covered with different abstract patterns collaged together and extending beyond the table’s edges. A zigzagging row of dominos reaches between the two chairs, signifying that a game has been interrupted. A piece of paper with writing on it is also on the table, near the chair in the painting’s bottom left corner. 

What comes across most in this and the exhibition’s other paintings is absence. Everywhere we see signs of activity, such as the dominos, or plants and the bird, which require human attention. We also see signs of chaos and disorder — things that are coming part, or have spilled or fallen. 

Three paintings seem to form a group within this gathering. Otero depicts a bentwood rocking chair in a bathtub in two and in a dinghy, along with a dresser, in another. 

What is most striking about these three paintings is the evocation of utter isolation. Surrounded by liquid, in a room where one is usually alone, the empty chair in the bathtub conveys absence and loneliness, a literal and metaphorical condition of being cut off from the world, which mirrors our current situation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Angel Otero, “Naked Island” (2021), 84 by 108 by 1.5 inches

In “Naked Island” (oil paint and fabric collaged on canvas, 84 by 108 by 1.5 inches, 2021), the black bentwood rocking chair is in a bathtub full of dirty pink liquid, which suggests this could be a dream. 

The bathtub in “Idiot Prayer” (oil paint and fabric collaged on canvas, 47.5 by 31.5 by 1.5 inches, 2021) sits in a wretched room with black walls and floor, all of which seem to be covered with detritus. The rocking chair is inside the bathtub, along with a card table; dominos — which is not a game one can play alone — are on the table. The chair symbolizes both pride and anguish: the arrogance and torment of playing without a partner in a room where one expects solitude. 

In this exhibition Otero seems to have left abstraction and entered a new territory that is not simply representational. Through his use of collage and paint to construct a potent image, he has enlarged his approach, generating more possibilities. At the same time, given “Idiot Prayer” was done this year, I have the sense that Otero has been able to transform the personal into something larger and more inclusive than one person’s memories or dreams.  

Angel Otero: The Fortune of Having Been There continues at Lehmann Maupin (501 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 27.


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