Sunday, January 10, 2010

Believe the hype: Otero is on the rise

By Lauren Viera, Tribune reporter

January 8, 2010

Sometimes, hype is all we have to go on.

I first learned about a voracious young painter named Angel Otero last spring, shortly after he received his master of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute. Even then I was late to the party: At 27, the Puerto Rico native had already reached milestones that most artists rarely allow themselves to dream about.

For starters, in February, several of Otero's works were exhibited at Spain's major international fair of contemporary art (ARCO), represented by the very hip, Canary Islands-based Leyendecker Gallery. On the first day of that fair, every last one of Otero's paintings sold. Weeks earlier, at the Circa '09 international art fair in Puerto Rico, same thing: All paintings sold, all on the first day.

By summer, Otero was on a roll. He received the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund in the Performing and Visual Arts, a prestigious grant awarded by invitation to just one visual artist annually, in the generous sum of six figures to be invested over two years.

One of his works was selected for inclusion in the Museum of Contemporary Art's "Constellations" exhibit, on view last summer and fall alongside major paintings by Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte and Francis Bacon, among others. The icing? In October, Otero was chosen as the honored guest artist at the Art Institute's annual big-ticket fundraiser, BareWalls, adding his name to an elite list that includes Ed Paschke and Cynthia Rowley.

That was last year, Otero's fourth living in the States. He moved to Chicago in 2005 on a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute after growing up in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, a small city best known for its pork rinds. He was raised by his grandmother in a household he's said was devoid of books and paintings.

"What I could consider art around me back then was the stuff that shocked me or affected me," said Otero via telephone from his Brooklyn studio, which he set up in the fall with his Annenberg fellowship funds. "[My] work is about these sorts of memories, or confronted memories … to find some sort of interesting conversation between what is abstraction, material process and memory. There's abstraction, there's paint and then there's all these things together."

Somewhere between Otero's brain and his paintbrush, his interpreted memories become three-dimensional. What finds its way onto the canvas (often painted black, to start) are bright, textural spurts clinging to the surface. The resulting paintings are bizarre, but not off-putting. What could easily appear crude and clumsy, like an amateur experimenting with new materials, instead is laced with meaningful detail in the least likely places.

In a solo show at Kavi Gupta Gallery, Otero's "The Golden Vase" (2009) is abstract, for sure — the flowers in the vase are splotches of peeling, colored acrylics; the table on which it sits is a web of silicone squirted into a grid resembling rattan furniture. But there's very little irony. The vase has depth, and it's obvious that this thing — this object — was foremost in Otero's mind when he was painting it. As Otero explained, when you're raised middle-class, as he was, household possessions present an interesting aesthetic.

He clarified: "If they need a countertop, the high-class people have the budget for granite; the poor person just needs a slab of wood. And then the middle-class person has contact paper that looks like granite, and it's perfect. I like that; I grew up around that. I have found my way to navigate through all these memories and objects, through the stuff of my family, and also confront them with these ambitions of painting."

"Untitled (golden bowl)" (2009) is more controlled than "The Golden Vase." The bowl itself is nearly invisible, but lining the surrounding canvas is an immaculate system of tiny squares — blobs, really. It's gold-leaf, deconstructed.

Gold is everywhere in Otero's work. He attributes it to "weird kitsch" objects present in middle-class families, and the best example we've seen is his "Winners" (2009) installation at Kavi Gupta Gallery: three tiers of trophies covered with gold oil-paint, crusted up into Otero's signature flecks. Underneath those scabs of paint, you can just barely make out a guy frozen in a bowling stance, or a dude popping a wheelie on his motorcycle. The top trophy is the largest, and it's so thick with paint, the figure is diminished to a vague, marshmallow-y silhouette.

Otero likens his thick layers of paint to layers in a cake, adding them one at a time until he has a finished piece. They're created by coating mirrors with oil paint, playing with colors as he goes. Once they're dry, they're scraped off in whole sheets. The resulting layers are so thick and textural, many critics (including this one) have at first mistaken them for fabric.

The back room at Kavi Gupta Gallery features these uber-textural works exclusively. Here there are no golden bowls or vases on tables — just layer upon layer of color and texture, oil and tar poured onto canvas, piece by piece.

"I don't want to be so direct," Otero said of his layering process. "That's why all these things have paint on top of them in different techniques, in order to find that effect."

On the heels of the Kavi Gupta Gallery show, more of Otero's new work will be exhibited in a solo show Jan. 23 at the Chicago Cultural Center. It's a heck of a way to kick off a new year.

I asked the young painter if he felt differently since graduating and receiving so many honors.

"To be honest," he said, "the only thing that has changed is the responsibility that takes over me. I have this weird abstract pressure to work more, and I'm trying to do the best I can, but I swear to God I'm still floating in the air. I swear I still can't believe it sometimes."

Angel Otero at Kavi Gupta Gallery, 835 W. Washington Blvd., 312-432-0708; Through Jan. 30.
"Touch with Your Eyes: Recent Works by Angel Otero,"
at Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., Sidney R. Yates Gallery, 312-744-2947;
Opens Jan. 23; gallery talk with the artist Jan. 28.

Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune

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