Angel Otero couldn't have more of a buzz around him at this point if he were an actual angel. Selling out at the NADA Art Fair in Miami has boosted his stock once again. Some of the paintings that graced those fair, tropical walls are now back in Chicago, and on view at Kavi Gupta Gallery. Otero's paintings fit squarely into the mold of early modernist painters, where as the story goes, paint increasingly become independent from the image. And if there is any innovation in Otero's work, it would be in the application department. The images are largely domestic, vases, tables, cloth, statues, doilies, frames and flowers all populate the darkened grounds. Yet they ultimately seem secondary to Mr. Otero's painterly activities. Lace and crocheted forms are scrawled out by squeeze bottles of pale tan paint or crackling black tar. Textile patterns are formed by squares of carved paint cemented to the ground.
There is a type of gestural expressionism not only in Otero's paint handling but also in how he collages in the other parts. Paint skins made from wispy transparent silicone sheets also get hot glued to the canvas. Sometimes it's paint or tar. The clearly noticable glops of glue either reinforces the traditional stereotype of the visionary artist hapharzardly constructing masterpieces or acknowledges the otherwise sublimated role of the glue to hold stuff onto the canvas. In pieces like Bingo Night or The Golden Vase where the silicon chiffon curls assume a role as flower petals the material effects meld with the reference to become nearly poignant (The Golden Vase seen at top, detail at left). Similarly the use of tar as netting works to deepen the possible associations of the material, despite its surprising elegance (Who would've guessed?).
One irksome moment in the exhibition: the oil paint and gold leaf gilded trophies called "Winners" that climb one wall of the gallery. The piece comes off as an artist showing us the time logged in the studio and yet still uncomfortable with their rising status.
Setting that aside, Otero's practice isn't located with Matisse, but rather next to Jose Lerma, Pia Fries and Andre Butzer. In a room off to one side of the gallery, several newer, smaller works made entirely of paint skins hang drooping along two walls. Entirely abstract, the skins take on the look of piled bedsheets or tye-dyed t-shirts. Different from the rest but containing the same parts, these works show the function of the vase, lace and flowers in the other paintings. The representations, devoid of meaning on their own, form a structure for the marks, however minimal that may be.
And it is that reason, for being one way and no t another, which is so fleeting in the contemporary world, where artistic values are hard to come by. The animism of material in Otero's work isn't as visceral as Butzer's or as self-referential as Fries but it does exist and hopefully it will be nurtured into something more vibrant.
(Images courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago)