Angel Otero

With the ebullience of youth—he’s not yet thirty—Puerto Rican–born, Brooklyn-based Angel Otero fills old bottles with new wine, bringing innovative and dramatic formal strategies to bear on conventional formats and subjects. Although his compositions often resemble traditional oil paintings, Otero rarely touches the surface of a canvas with a brush carrying paint. Instead, he crafts many of his works from “oil skins”—paint that has been poured on glass or Plexiglas, left to dry, and then peeled off in sheets. Sometimes Otero crumples the skins and uses them as building blocks in representational paintings; other times he collages the swathes together in full abstractions. In The Golden Vase (all works 2009), wadded-up oil skins erupt in colorful expressionist flowers on a dark field—a juxtaposition of frenzy and repose—the scattered shards of chunky paint simulating the bravura brushwork of Otero’s painterly predecessors. In other works, such as Untitled (Golden Bowl), Otero slices and dices the oil skins into little squares, arranging the tesserae into a grid. (Here, “painting” means collaging fragments of paints.) Another of Otero’s painting strategies is to squeeze silicone directly from the tube and draw like a cake decorator, skillfully rendering chairs and tables, or even, as in House, the streets and facades of houses in his native San Juan.

It is to San Juan and the neighborhood of Santurce, where Otero lived until he was twenty-four, that his work regularly returns. Spanish Baroque is everywhere evident in the architecture of Puerto Rico, and the artist’s many tabletop still lifes of opulent vases and exuberantly rendered flowers, usually against the darkest of backgrounds, draw on the pictorial vocabulary of Meléndez, Sánchez Cotán, and Zurbarán. Otero frequently makes overt references to his family—for example, Untitled (Portrait of Grandma’s Table), shown in a concurrent exhibition of his work at the Chicago Cultural Center—but at Kavi Gupta he evokes San Juan through architectural fragments from the city (as in House or Gate) or Baroque statuary (the image of the Madonna and Child in Saints II). His obsessive interlacing of piped silicone in Bingo Night obliquely references the staircase in his grandmother’s San Juan home. By drawing poignantly on memory, he ameliorates his works’ assertive expressionist effects. It is in this tension between personal recollection (images of Baroque chairs, golden vases, and his grandmother’s house) and exercises in painterly process (techniques employing sliced oil skins and silicone piping) that the special quality and challenge of Otero’s work seems to rest.

James Yood