I Dream About a Lot of Things, Man: On Angel Otero, CAMH, and Neuroses

Article by ben

Generally speaking, I try to practice a nonthreatening demeanor (for this, you’re welcome). The first time I meet you, I will stand as far away from you as possible. I will go out of my way to not squeeze by you in an airplane-tight place, fearing I’ll accidentally touch you and you’ll find this invasive. This is my neurotic gift to you, but in its delivery—picture meeting someone who locks eyes with his shoes, keeps his arms roped straight to his sides, stands nearly shouting-distance away from you during introductory pleasantries—it serves not so much comfort as discomfort (so, actually, sorry).

For these reasons, though, I am a model of museum-going perfection. Those signs that instruct you not to touch the artwork? Those volunteers eyeballing you like Queen’s Guards instructed not to speak? Forget about it. I’m not going anywhere near the art. I don’t even want to breathe on it. It’s not that I’m concerned about not touching the art; I’m more concerned with seeming like the kind of person who never even thinks of touching the art—never even wonders what a painting or sculpture would feel like under his fingertips. My ideal museum stance: in middle of the room, equidistant from everything, making lighthouse-like rotations to see the goods (which, again, appears more threatening than not, probably).

So consider my terror when, on a recent visit to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), Felice Cleveland motions to a painting and says, “You almost want to touch it, right?” What repressed, aberrant impulse has she sensed in me?

Cleveland is CAMH’s Education and Public Programs Director—“my job,” she tells me, “is to open the door and hope people come in”—and I’m meeting her to tour a new exhibition called “Angel Otero: Everything and Nothing.” This is Otero’s first major survey in the United States (he was born and raised in Puerto Rico, now lives in New York), and it covers ten years of his work, including still lifes, skin paintings, transfer paintings, and sculptures. He is, I recognize with my limited art history understanding, an “abstract” artist, one drawn to contradictions—the title of his exhibition comes from Jorge Luis Borges, whose influential short stories often involve concrete realities layered to the point of surreality—but Cleveland finds nothing difficult about Otero’s work—that’s why she’s drawn to the colors, to the textures, wanting to touch the work herself. As somebody who traffics in potentially difficult art, she has her own thinking about how to discuss it: “You have to start with how it makes you feel, then have a bigger conversation.”

Much of the bigger conversation one can have around Otero’s work involves his use of material and his appropriation of familiar objects, but for him, it seems intuitive; he starts with feeling, too. In his artist talk for CAMH’s exhibition, he speaks about his early, breakthrough paintings. He recalls growing up in Puerto Rico, drawn to his family (though they were largely unaware of art) and his grandmother in particular. As a young artist, he remembered her tabletops, her aprons, and he began collaging dry oil paint to create works of memory, the colors and bulky textures tilting just far enough from basic reality as to seem expressionistic. These paintings were made from collaging paint, cutting (yes, literally cutting) paint, scraping away paint, and layering paint. These are still lifes, yes, but even an everyday object like a vase of flowers becomes jagged and cast in theater-gel blue.

From here, Otero made an almost archetypal transition (archetypal for most experimental artists, anyway) from figuration into abstraction; in his CAMH talk, he calls it “finding [his] own voice,” adding that he enjoys “dancing between two subjects: the personal and the art historical.” Moving from still lifes, Otero began taking classical paintings—in one notable instance, a work by Titian—and reconfiguring them, smearing them, keeping all the elements in the original but blasting them apart as though shrapnel damage. Because he works with oil paint—slow to dry—he’s able to keep scraping, rebuilding, covering. “Oil painting,” Otero says, “redirects itself because of the medium,” by which he means, the paint seems almost alive, and through his compulsive scraping and layering, the memory of earlier paintings remains beneath the final version. (In this sense, Otero reminds me a bit of William Basinski, the ambient musician who made a great album, The Disintegration Loops, by recording the decay of some old tapes as he attempted to digitize them.) Otero talks about abstracting many things over the course of his career—gates, photographs of his father, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. He seems like a man who has never met something he wouldn’t like to abstract.

For this reason, perhaps I should stop here a moment and describe Otero himself during his CAMH talk, lest you start to imagine him some pompous academician. He’s a skinny young man (the kind of young that makes his intelligence and skill jealousy-inducing) with a shaved oblong head, whose hands always seem to be making rolling gestures, even with a water bottle (constantly clutched) weighing one of those hands down. His jeans hug his legs, and his short-sleeved button-down doesn’t so much look like a floral shirt but (fittingly) like an abstraction of a floral shirt, all busy and black-and-white. He has a friendly, nonthreatening demeanor (am I just projecting here?) with his audience, never standing too close to them (yes, projecting). At one point, he describes one of his paintings as “landscape-y.” At another point, he smiles and says, “I dream about a lot of things, man.” He describes one painting of his father as a young boy as being “ghostly and too exposed”—as having made him feel “shy and uncomfortable.” To this end, abstraction isn’t an academic pretense for him, rather something of an armor that, paradoxically, reveals his own vulnerability.

Because Otero seems vulnerable, I feel vulnerable too as I walk through the exhibition with Felice Cleveland, as I talk to her about the paintings. We rarely talk about theory, only about feeling. Yes, I do want to touch the paintings—or at least get close to them, to drop my standoffish, phony courtesy. As I tour the exhibition, I remember one moment of Otero’s artist talk: a moment when, as he discusses one of his oil paintings, a man in a leather jacket enters the background, behind Otero, storming one of his paintings with such speed I’m afraid he’ll collide with it. But no, he stops just before it and peers closely, this jacketed man, pulled too into Otero’s memory.

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