Critics’ Picks

Peter Otto, Hand of History (ode to John Heartfield), 2009, oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 43".

Peter Otto, Hand of History (ode to John Heartfield), 2009, oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 43".

Chicago

Peter Otto

Devening Projects
3039 W Carroll Ave
March 7–April 9, 2010

The weight of fallen bodies haunts Peter Otto’s recent paintings and drawings, which are strewn with narrow, rectangular, coffinlike elements. The Dutch painter’s partiality to neo-expressionist modalities is apparent in his use of vibrant, high-key color, forceful mark-making, and cryptic iconography. Skulls, smoke, crutches, flowers on rickety stalks and heads on stakes all float in ambiguous settings that appear to melt and shift before the viewer’s eyes. These hallucinatory pictorial spaces evoke the crippling effects of war and political repression on the mind, body, and will. There are hints of Philip Guston in paintings like Hand of History (ode to John Heartfield), 2009, in which an absurdly attenuated, disembodied arm sprouting a shriveled head and a withered flower rest flaccidly before a totemic form resembling a computer terminal. The latter painting’s titular reference to Heartfield (né Helmut Herzfeld), a German political satirist and photomontage artist, also speaks to Otto’s proclivity for macabre caricature.

Otto is not a painter of history as such; rather, he evokes the psychological and spiritual weight that history imposes on its subjects. Loading his brush with hues of fiery orange, yellow ocher, milky green, and purple, Otto applies paint to the canvas in thickly delivered, planklike strokes. The consistently horizontal orientation of his brushwork suggests the gravitational pull of sorrow as well as the psychic load borne by the paintings themselves. Contrasting moments of visual uplift in the form of tents, fences, flagpoles, and other vertical elements serve to carry the eye upward. When directed at Otto’s paintings, the viewer’s gaze repeatedly traces the act of falling and getting up again.