Angel Otero - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Phillips is pleased to present a work by the enigmatic Angel Otero, Butterflies Drinking Crocodile Tears. Through his bewitching compositions that traverse the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, memory and identity, the Puerto Rican-American painter has blazed his own trail in the art world – becoming one its most revered, and consequential, creatives.



    A Unique Approach


    Otero in his Brooklyn studio, 2019. Pots of his ‘oil skins’ are on the table in front of him.
    Image: © Taylor Dafoe

    Otero’s technique is singular: he begins each painting by meticulously reproducing reference images in dense oil paint on large planes of plexiglass. Once the paint has nearly dried, the artist delicately removes what he terms the ‘oil skin’ from the glass surface and adorns and combines it onto large-scale canvases i. This technique effectively obfuscates the original painted imagery and culminates in an entirely new and distinctive composition. Through years of scrupulously observing interactions between pigment and surface, the artist has established his own style while simultaneously broadening the traditional genre of abstract painting.


    “I was tired of the canvas and the frame, and I knew I wanted to embrace something more sculptural without departing from the conversations about painting I usually have with the work in the studio. So, I brought all these scraps and leftovers to the studio floor, spread them all around, and literally started cutting shapes and making compositions with them. That was my first impulse. That’s the way I tend to work in the studio: act first and then think, rather than the other way around”
    — Angel Otero

    This novel approach to artistic production symbolizes an extension of Otero’s focus. The artist incorporates mediums beyond painting, notably woodcutting and etching, and employs some of these printmaking techniques in his practice. Starting with a layer of paint on glass, Otero introduces his line work by wiping away the paint with a cloth - the negative space ultimately unveiling the images. The painting undergoes a metamorphosis during the transfer to the canvas - certain images are distinctly visible while others are wholly distorted. Otero’s artistic references, primarily abstract and Expressionist artists of the 20th century, amalgamate into cohesive gestural abstraction. The artist asserts himself more prominently into these collaged works, and the convergence of art history they signify, by scraping into or drawing onto the tableau.


    Installation view of the current work at: Hong Kong, Lehmann Maupin, Angel Otero: Born in the Echoes, 26 May - 2 July 2016


    An Artist Who Lays Himself Bare


    The measured chaos that finds genesis in Otero’s works speaks to a greater dislocation – that of his own identity. Born in Puerto Rico, Otero moved to the East Coast to study at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago where he would have to navigate the two worlds of diasporic experience. In charting smooth passage, he would come to rely on the duality of memory and origin: ‘I’m constantly thinking about the concept of home, but also about the different departures that I can take from it, converting into an interesting formal excuse to make these paintings that are very meaningful to me. I feel that I have always been on this constant rediscovery or re-questioning of myself: where I’ve come from, where I am, where I grew up. Where I’m at the present moment, and how I relate that to my past.’ ii. This dyad emerges in the chimerical qualities of the present lot. Spread across four panels, we see the concrete scales of crocodiles (native to Costa Rica) battle for pictorial space with the ephemeral wings of butterflies. Here, forms coalesce as ciphered memories, plunging the viewer into Otero’s whirlpool of nostalgia. The palette is emotional, seductive: tracts of red circulate with bands of grey to create concentric demi-moons. Elements of beige and white serve to anchor the work and provide entry points for our own introspection.


    The relation between butterflies and crocodiles hold fascinating relevance, as they are known to drink the latter’s salty tears. This phenomenon – more akin to fairy tale rather than the real world – is one of a delicate, oxymoronic beauty, much like the present lot. Just as the butterfly and crocodile engage in mutual benefit, Otero takes what he needs from oil to create his art. He repurposes the material, transforming it into something of real beauty. The layers of paint, like the layers of a butterfly's wings, are diaphanous yet resilient - composing a work that is both intricate and durable.


    An Amazonian crocodile with a crown of indulging butterflies.
    Image: Rolf Nussbaumer Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

    Dialogue with Art History


    A melting pot of form and colour like Butterflies Drinking Crocodile Tears can be difficult to navigate, not only for us, the viewer, but also for Otero, as its architect. “I feel that culturally, I grew up in a very confusing environment”, he explains. “Am I American or am I Puerto Rican? Am I Black, or am I Spanish, or am I Taino, or am I this, or am I that? I don’t think that art necessarily needs to give us an answer to these questions, but we all have the right to turn to art as an exit. To transform those questions into formal aspects.” iii. The heightened drama of Otero’s self-identification and determination finds itself aligned with that of the Spanish Baroque. While artists like Goya and Velázquez incorporated intricate allegories and symbolic references to convey religious or philosophical ideas, Otero focuses on the essential symbolism of form – fragmented and distorted shapes – to conjure a facsimile of his identity’s complex directions.



    Diego Velázquez, Christ Contemplated by the Christian Soul, c. 1660
    National Gallery, London
    Image: © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence


    Collector’s Digest


    • Otero is a rising star in the art market, and recently moved to Hauser & Wirth. His work is in numerous public and private collections including: Berezdivin Collection, Puerto Rico; Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx; DePaul Art Museum, Chicago; Istanbul Modern, Istanbul, Turkey; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City; Margulies Collection, Miami; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Guggenheim Museum, New York; UBS Art Collection, Chicago; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.



    i. Alex Greenberger, ‘Angel Otero Heads to Hauser & Wirth as His Market Rapidly Ascends’, ARTnews, 4 February 2022, online

    ii Otero quoted in Valentina Di Liscia, ‘Painter Angel Otero on Solitude and What It Means When You Can’t Go Home’, Hyperallergic, 14 August 2020, online

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Hong Kong, Lehmann Maupin, Angel Otero: Born in the Echoes, 26 May - 2 July 2016


Butterflies Drinking Crocodile Tears

signed, titled and dated '"Butterflies Drinking Crocodile Tears" Angel Otero 2016' on the reverse
oil and fabric collaged on canvas, diptych
overall 243.8 x 368.3 cm. (95 7/8 x 145 in.)
Painted in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

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Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023