New York

Fred Otnes

Reece Galleries

Fred Otnes’s intricate collage-paintings typically comprise fragments of reproductions of old-master portraits, plans describing ancient temples or Renaissance palaces, handwritten letters and anatomical illustrations, and pages of old books in Latin, Middle German, or English. In this, his fifth New York show (all works 1998), it is clear that the artist seems to share with Joseph Cornell a fascination for metaphysical symbols, including geometrical figures and diagrams, letters of the alphabet, spheres, circles, wheels, and measuring devices. These items are usually arranged in the shape of a fantastical personage (as in Winged Figure, A Little Lady, and Man with a Black Heart), set against a cloudy background painted in brackish, earthy hues that recall the bleak settings of works by Rembrandt or Goya.

The quality of eerie menace in many of these assemblages seems a natural ether for their equally affecting lyrical and nostalgic passages. Especially moving pieces in Otnes’s recent show included The Cage, in which a small white bird sits atop a flattened birdcage—free—that has been affixed to the canvas; and Night Fear, which features a grisly hound cobbled from pieces of a Gray’s-style illustration depicting an animal’s skeletal and muscular systems.

Aside from a brooding affinity with the paintings of Victor Hugo and the Victorian age generally, the sense of hauntedness that Otnes conjures feels peculiar to our own day. This is due in part to the overall surreal quality of his work, as well as to his willingness to borrow from the styles of many more or less familiar artistic periods, whether it is the Dutch school of landscape evoked by the photo transfers of trees in Little Kimbal or the Cubist-portrait style of Colines. Otnes’s imaginings of phantoms, angels, and other apparitions also seem to bear an oblique relation to today’s fixation with the paranormal.

The artist’s combination of materials, subjects, and styles lands viewers in a musty phantasmagoria whose spectral inhabitants appear to have sprung from the vagarious reaches of consciousness. Yet the poses Otnes’s strange, puppetlike creatures strike are in some ways so conventional that they finally seem as poignantly familiar as the monsters, fleeting shapes,and more genial spirits who populated our childhood imaginations—and no stranger than we sometimes recognize our own existence to be.

Tom Breidenbach