Inside a concrete-floored studio along a row of graffitied warehouses in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the walls are lined with eight-foot-tall paintings. Some are domestic interiors with a hint of mystery. In one, goldfish rain down on an upright piano topped with a set of dentures in a drinking glass and flanked by buckets of paint. In another, pleated-paper fans resembling butterflies alight on a floral sofa. Other canvases hew toward pure abstraction with a riot of vibrant colors and freeform, densely composed mark-making.
The seemingly disparate styles are the work of a single artist, Angel Otero, who has impressed the art world with his ability to paint both representational and abstract works compellingly—a feat that brings to mind such greats as Gerhard Richter and Philip Guston. One warm September day, Otero, whose black clothes are punctuated by the gleaming yellow gold of a chunky Rolex, surveys the room and explains that both approaches tackle his primary subject matter: memory.
“Before, I thought I needed to attach myself to one, and that was a bit of creative and emotional pressure,” he says. “At this point, I’ve decided, hey, this is how I work. When you put one of the abstract works next to one of the more representational ones, I think they have a very complex and beautiful conversation.”
The group is destined for Hauser & Wirth in New York, where, opening November 10, Otero will have his first exhibition with the mega gallery since defecting from his longtime dealers earlier this year. It’s safe to assume the show will be well-attended: His auction record has been broken four times since March 2021 and now stands at $335,600, triple that lot’s high estimate.
Otero began developing his signature technique while a grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in the 2000s. His path there was anything but linear. Painting since his childhood in Puerto Rico, he was always fascinated by the materials and processes, including the wet-on-wet method Bob Ross taught on his now iconic TV show The Joy of Painting as well as George Baselitz’s upside-down technique. “Subject at that point wasn’t driving me too much,” Otero says. “I was more into making.”
At the University of Puerto Rico, he fashioned himself an abstract expressionist but left after a few years. “At some point without my knowledge, a professor wrote a letter to the School of the Art Institute admissions department saying he had a student with a lot of potential who just dropped out and he wanted them to make me an approach.” Otero had never heard of SAIC when he received an invitation to interview, but his friends helped him load up a truck with his paintings for the appointment.
The school offered him a half scholarship to complete his BFA there and, later, a full ride for his MFA. He arrived in a snowstorm and navigated both culture and weather shock. “Chicago changed my life,” he says. “It was the first time leaving my island and leaving my family.”
Otero always had trouble articulating his thoughts about his work—a key part of art-school pedagogy. “So I decided, I’m going to paint things that I know I can speak about, and that’s myself and my past,” he recalls. “When it came to speaking about them, nobody could give me shit. I knew there was more and more that I could keep digging and digging.” He plumbed his recollections of his home, where he lived with his mother and sister downstairs, his grandmother and great-grandmother upstairs. A recurring motif is a rocking chair in a bathtub: His disabled great-grandmother needed to sit in the shower.
In his last year of grad school, he developed the method he continues to rely on today. As he tells it, “I wanted to make paintings of those memories, but I knew I didn’t want to paint them traditionally, meaning, ‘I’m going to paint an image of a chair with my brushes.’ I needed that extra challenge of creating a dialogue between the materials and the content. I was trying to find my own voice.”
Otero noticed the pile of dry oil paint that had accumulated on his palette. “It hurt to throw away paint that cost so much,” he says, wincing at the thought. “[The pile] reminded me of crumbling flowers, and I was like, ‘I could use this as a representation of a crumbling flower.’ I liked that it looked sculptural. I’ve always approached painting very sculpturally.”
But after winning positive feedback with the technique, Otero started running out of the dried refuse. He tried to speed up the process by brushing oil paint onto small Plexiglas panels, waiting, then scraping it off. When he didn’t clean the panels between uses, some of the previous pigment stained the new layer, which proved to be an “aha” moment. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, I can paint on the surface of glass in a traditional way, and I can paint anything—figurative, abstract—and I can actually keep painting more references on top of that,’ ” Otero says. Then he could remove the whole shebang at once, creating a half-wet, half-dry “oil skin” that, once affixed to the canvas, distorted the image, making it “damaged in a great way.” “It’s painting traditionally, but it’s a print, it’s décollage, and it’s sculptural. I’m taking over all these mediums without leaving paint as a nucleus.”
Process and subject harmonized beautifully: The cracked, layered, imperfect effect spoke to memory’s inherent blurriness and distortion. At times, the personal content left him feeling “naked,” he says, but he now sees the oil skins’ mitigation as a “shield.” Otero, who also has a studio upstate and another in Puerto Rico, has since perfected his operation, peeling off the oil skin with an electric wallpaper scraper. For the representational works in this new group, he also used collage, painting small elements, such as the goldfish or dentures, separately on the Plexiglas (rather than as a part of a layer), then placing them onto the canvas surface individually.
Collaging gives him a degree of control that the oil skins don’t, but he’s not complaining about the unpredictability. “I think it’s cool,” he says, “because it’s also very human.”