Frankly, my guard was up for Angel Otero: New Works at CAM Raleigh. At first glance, I took Otero's paintings for a generic imitation of Abstract Expressionism. But the New York-based artist turns out to be neither strictly abstract nor strictly expressionist. In fact, his paintings and sculptures are a shot across the bow of young, contemporary artists who nestle into emotionally vague abstraction and process-obsession while they wait for an idea to come along.
Some subtle exploration is going on in the eight sculptures and five paintings of New Works, Otero's first museum show. The paintings—for which Otero layers oils on glass, peels off the half-dry paint skin, affixes it glass-side out to a canvas, and then pleats, scars and paints that surface—are visually homogeneous and lack figuration. The sculptures are of tangled and charred black metal, with handfuls of ceramic clay wadded on and roughly glazed before firing. A viewer's eyes dart all over these works, searching in vain for a defining characteristic.
But abstraction isn't just about the image anymore. Born of the need to conserve expensive paint by scraping it off old canvases while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Otero's paint-skin process relinquishes the fundamental method of painterly control—the gestural brushstroke. These paintings aren't about what they look like; they're about what they are. Otero's imagery is abstract, but his process is literal.
The paintings aren't exactly expressionist, either. Although Otero says in interviews that they contain references to his childhood in Puerto Rico, the paintings transfer neither narrative nor an emotional tone to the viewer. Imageless, even the allegorical content suggested by titles such as "Profane" and "Bacchanal II" doesn't come across. Any expression is interrupted by Otero's reversal of the painting skin once he peels it from the glass. Once mounted, these aren't paintings inspired by childhood; they're the backs of those paintings.
"Carnival," compositionally the most interesting of the paintings, is also the smallest in the show. Otero's other canvases measure 6 feet by 8 feet or 4 feet by 6 feet, but "Carnival" is only a foot by a foot and a half. Its black-and-white palette is likewise the exception among the dark, rich ochres, greens, plums and silvers on the other walls.
"Carnival" is as close to a painterly grid as Otero gets, with vertically oriented pleats and strict horizontal rows of blurry black marks across a white field, almost suggesting a landscape. It's more of a cinematic impression, though, as if Eadweard Muybridge had miniaturized his photographs, or if strips of a 16mm film had been pasted down horizontally. The film could be of some speed-blurred action, like a flock of birds taking off from a roost. While the other four paintings seem like static and congealed concealments, "Carnival" feels kinetic and open.
Otero's sculptures share that activity, coded by the violent actions and improvisational speed of their making. He uses steel patio furniture, ornamental metalwork and heavy-duty trays like those permanently installed in picnic area grills. The metal is cut and bent and welded before the misshapen lumps of porcelain clay are crammed onto it. Then the entire sculpture goes into the kiln. Mangled, glopped and burnt, the sculptures are a crusty mess. Just as the paintings are subverted by an after-painting reversal, the sculptures seem like destroyed sculptures. Otero produces post-artifact artifacts.
Otero's violent sculptural process nonetheless resolves into visually unified works that elicit degrees of sorrow and sympathy. Only one of them, "Sunday," is titled. Its structure comes from a patio table and chairs (that classic diamond mesh metal you probably have on your deck) and a floral ornament that would have held the glass tabletop in place. One of the chairs is ripped in two and piled on the tabletop. Everything is encrusted with mottled green and yellow porcelain chunks. The entire arrangement is dense, implying a crouch.
Where most of the other sculptures seem like exercises in Otero's process, "Sunday" takes on higher meaning by dint of its title. It has a selective religious sense, almost a post-apocalyptic vision, as if the sculpture had failed a final judgment. Ritual informs "Sunday." The leisure of weekends on the patio is examined in its destroyed forms.
As wrecked-looking as these sculptures are, they're covered with beautiful details. Accidental undulations of glaze, rough hand marks in the clay and cracks that the firing produces all reward stepping close to scrutinize them. A level of fragility appears once you get that close. By way of his process, Otero quite intentionally produces these controlled accidents, although each particular detail is left to chance.
The most impressive sculptural piece in the show is a narrow, untitled work about 9 feet high. Vertical metal shafts are loosely connected to form a structure only about the width of a torso. White porcelain wraps the shafts together and is spattered with a flat, dark-blue glaze. As the frame goes up, there's a clot in the middle. The pinnacle is inconclusive. Rather than reading as an imposing human figure, the piece implies an orphaned architectural form—a column without its building or an obelisk without its setting. It's a lonely, austere sculpture that makes you feel like you traveled a long way to see it.
This show will probably end up being a feather in CAM's cap, as Otero is very worth following. The 31-year-old was named among the 50 most collectible artists by Art+Auction magazine in June. Otero's work is refreshingly absent of preciousness, particularly the sculptures. New Works offers a portrait of an artist working quickly and intuitively, one comfortable with chance taking a hand. If you find yourself wondering what result Otero would consider a failure, you should remind yourself that, at this point in his career, the process is more of an end in itself than the sculptures and paintings are.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Under the skin."