Portrait of Angel Otero in his Brooklyn studio. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.
Angel Otero (b. 1981, Santurce, Puerto Rico; lives and works in Brooklyn, New York) is best known for his process-based paintings, collages, and sculptural works that venerate the inherent qualities of his material of choice, oil paint. Employing various methods of collage, Otero explores the potential for abstraction to meaningfully engage memory and identity using line, form, and color. Through a methodically innovative process, the artist paints representationally onto large sheets of glass, scrapes the partially dried oil paint from the surface, and then reassembles the resulting “skins” into multi-layered compositions. In this way, the paint itself emerges as a crucial conceptual component, mobilizing ideas of chance, conveyance, and aesthetic vernacular, while the images and themes it visualizes become fragments or parts of a history energized by the material. Much of Otero’s early work was directly influenced by personal memories based on photographs and other family memorabilia combined with the gestures of painters such as Nicolas Poussin, Pablo Picasso, and Willem de Kooning. Instead of representing his life through art, he archives moments within it through a constant negotiation between lived experience and art historical references.
Angel Otero First Rain in May, 2020.
PHILLIPS: What does your creative process look like? What are you drawing inspiration from at the moment?
ANGEL OTERO: My creative process at the moment, or rather I would say, my starting point during these times, has been from a very personal place. I had been meaning to revisit several artworks that I created almost ten years ago, where I was depicting interior scenes and memories of mine from childhood when I was growing up in Puerto Rico. While in quarantine, I decided to re-approach my studio practice in a rather traditional way and see how I could revisit those older works and create a bridge to the present. I wanted to see how they would reveal or transform if I made them during this period of time. There is a certain nostalgia that I was aiming for back then that is also similar to how I'm feeling today. I have been drawing a lot recently, and working to translate my sketches onto the canvas in a traditional way, or painting over older canvases that I have kept and working to bring out a representational element that connects with my memories from my past.
P: Where is your current home base in the midst of the widespread lockdown and how are the changes affecting your process?
AO: I've been sheltering in place in upstate New York for roughly the past three months with my family, in a very small town called Malden. This change of scenery, from Brooklyn, has actually revealed itself to be a very positive one for me. I have embraced this isolation in a very constructive way, personally and for my work.
Inside Angel Otero's New York studio.
P: Your work seems to run on the gamut of personal history, art history, at times incorporating text and imagery, masterfully piecing together many elements in an intuitive manner; when, in your memory was your first instance in discovering this ability?
AO: I don't think that I can pin down a specific moment where I decided to weave these two elements of personal and art historical together. I think in a way, I have always had this need to work with these two elements, to balance them and fuse them together. I approach that which is historical with a lot of personal subject matter that I either try to depict or use as a departure. I feel that they both coexist in my mind in a very intimate way. It’s almost hard to put into words. But visually it’s almost second nature for me.
Angel Otero Bingo Night, 2020 (detail).
P: How important is a sense of place for you and your practice?
AO: Having a sense of place is very important to me and my work. I'm constantly moving back and forth between this idea of where I come from, where I am currently, and where I want to be in the future versus where I will be. There is a lot of questioning within that internal dialogue and sense of place is at the heart of it. In many of my works you can see this manifested consciously or at times subconsciously. I think I am most comfortable expressing it visually.
Inside Angel Otero's New York studio.
P: Is there one thing in the studio or your surroundings right now that holds special value for you?
AO: There are a number of objects in my studio that hold special value for me, especially since I've been very drawn to collecting objects at a young age. Specifically objects that have a certain history that I feel connected to... for example, objects that belonged to my family, my grandma, my dad, my mom etcetera. I’m also very drawn to objects that carry a history within themselves, not necessarily one that is connected to me personally. There is not one specific object that carries more value for me now than before. They all have value! Over the years I have collected and held onto things, like one cent pennies that I wanted to keep because they belonged to my great-great-grandfather or porcelain figurines that I have carried with me from studio to studio which had belonged to my grandma.
P: Many galleries, museums, and art fairs are offering virtual viewing rooms, exhibitions and programming. How do you feel about this increased move towards the digital both for your work and the art world overall?
AO: Having an online exhibition with Lehman Maupin at the moment, which was adapted from an in-person exhibition to an Online Viewing Room. I do prefer being physically present in front of art to experience it fully, but I have to admit this digital platform is very different and has its perks which both impressed and surprised me! Much like a physical exhibition, I was very involved in the online one. I wanted it to feel personal and authentic. Also, it’s hard to ignore that everyone is at home right now and has the ability to access art digitally and instantaneously. This can be a positive in many ways. All in all, though, I am somewhat traditional in my attitude, the experience of seeing art in person and really getting up close and understanding its physicality is hard to replicate online.
Angel Otero Bingo Night, 2020.
P: What’s next for you? Is there an idea or future project you are particularly excited about?
AO: I have several things that I'm working on, but so far I'm concentrating on being upstate with family, working alone in the studio, and embracing that for the time being. I’m living in the present.