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Just before leaving for Hong Kong, where gallery Lehmann Maupin showed one of his new pieces at Art Basel Hong Kong last week (and is planning a solo show to run from May 26 to July 2), Angel Otero took time at his studio to show a few journalists his new work and share his process-driven approach to painting, his now-well-known “oil skins.”
The Puerto Rican-born, Brooklyn-based artist greeted us in his Bushwick studio amid colorful piles of oil paints accumulated on tables, canvases and covered slices of Plexiglas laid on the floor while eight of his new large-scale paintings stood against the wall. These new pieces confirm that Otero’s interest in figuration is only sustained insofar as there is potential for deformation and abstraction.
Otero’s innovative painting process has already gained wide recognition for revitalizing and even subverting the somewhat beat medium of oil painting on canvas: he creates what he calls “oil skins,” from paint dispensed onto glass and peeled off as sheets once dried to be finally fixated on canvas. Otero has referred to his unique process as “painting in reverse.”
Instead of being the direct support, the canvas merely acts as the platform to showcase the skin once completed. He covers his large-scale works with these thick, folding sheets, creating densely textured compositions full of hills and crevices.
“The process and the idea of the work is transformation,” Otero said during our visit. “It’s about taking specific subjects, images, or personal references, and painting them over this surface— Plexiglas—the idea being that these layers over layers of information make it possible to scrape the paint off the glass with the hope that the oil paint doesn’t completely dry inside. So the blade, or the tools that I use to scrape it off, distorts all the imagery and information that’s been accumulated on the surface.”
Otero came across this process while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. He noticed the appealing and odd look of dried oil painting, notably on his own palette. He started making flowers and recuperating dried “leftovers” (as they were referred to) from fellow art students. His professors responded positively to the work, which encouraged Otero to explore the technique further, his practice evolving along with that exploration. He soon felt that this process was not just a reference to painting, but also to sculptural and graphic art, and that it had to do also with the conversation of abstraction, since whatever he painted was going to come out pretty distorted.
“Eventually, what you may call accidents, or unexpected moments that happen in the process, tend to teach me something that I can follow in the next work,” he said. “It’s been always an ongoing conversation of different ways of constructing a painting. I don’t like the idea of filling what a lot of painters call, ‘comfortable zones,’ which are when you start making something that does work, and eventually you follow that and repeat it. I like the idea of kind of jumping from these comfortable zones, because as soon as I feel that things have become systematic it doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t make me feel really comfortable to be in the studio.”
The excitement and satisfaction Otero feels when he’s finished a work only lasts a few hours he says—a feeling often compared in the milieu to that felt by rock climbers who’ve made it to the top of a mountain and have to immediately start anticipating the next mount to ascent towards.