Artist Angel Otero was already craving solitude when he settled into a new home and studio in Malden, a town in upstate New York, at the outset of the pandemic. Until recently, the artist had been in the process of building a studio in Puerto Rico, which he hopes to transform into a community center. With the project stalled due to a series of natural disasters in the region and, more recently, the international health crisis, Otero has been looking inward rather than outward lately, pursuing a series of highly personal works.
In heading upstate, he lugged with him a group of old abstract canvases he found collecting dust in his Brooklyn studio. Otero has since revisited the works, incorporating elements from memories and photographs of his grandmother’s home in Puerto Rico. Four paintings from this new body of work, produced during the lockdown, are included in the online exhibition Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus, curated by Christian Viveros-Faune for the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum (UCF CAM).
Otero created the works through his distinctive process of painting with oils onto plexiglass sheets and collaging the dried paint onto canvas — a technique he developed during his final years as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But the imagery they allude to, as he told Hyperallergic in this interview, are more firmly rooted in his own visual vocabulary than in fragments of the past: they’re “just my best excuse to jump into the canvas.”
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Hyperallergic: Tell me about the months leading up to the pandemic. What made you decide to move upstate?
Angel Otero: For some time, a part of me was looking for a creative process that was much more intimate than my studio practice, where I usually engage a number of assistants — a process that was almost solitary. Ever since my last exhibition [Milagros, at Lehmann Maupin in 2019], I felt that I wanted to open a door and return home, in a metaphorical sense. For that show, I had incorporated doilies into the paintings, inspired by doilies that my grandmother, Maria Luisa, used to hand-crochet in Puerto Rico. I added them to one of the works at the last minute and I liked how it looked: it didn’t take away from the painting, nor did the painting take away from the object; they camouflaged into each other. And it worked, because I was introducing something very literal and personal so that it could become part of an abstract work.
H: How did that moment influence the works in the series you’re showing at UCS CAM?
AO: It planted this urge for me to reconsider the way I incorporate certain memories. I had a group of old paintings in my Brooklyn studio, some made ten years ago, that I didn’t feel were particularly successful — they were abstract and grounded in art historical references, Picasso, de Kooning, Gorky — but they still felt a bit vague to me. I mounted them on a truck and drove upstate, and used them as a sort of starting point to paint compositions based on different interiors, primarily from my grandmother’s house in San Juan, where I was raised. I drew the bathtub, the dining room table, the different kinds of tiles, the chairs, the windows, her flowers … All these elements read to me as still lives: they were representational, though very distorted. But for me, it was an opportunity to paint something that was truly mine. My intention with this work is not to tell a story about growing up with my grandmother in Puerto Rico — the memories are just my best excuse to jump into the canvas.
H: I think that’s a really important distinction, because there’s sometimes a prejudice that artists who are not European or American have to tell a story to the viewer, particularly a story about where they came from, and that the story needs to be linear or make sense.
AO: Exactly. I don’t tend to think about it so much these days as I did maybe ten years ago, but at the beginning [of my career] I felt a lot of pressure. Mainly because of my Latino background, a lot of people in the art world were constantly pushing me to tell a story about my identity, about Puerto Rico. And it made me feel … bad about myself. Because I thought, “no, that’s actually not really the way I’m approaching this.” These works are so mine. I’m constantly thinking about the concept of home, but also about the different departures that I can take from it, converting into an interesting formal excuse to make these paintings that are very meaningful to me. I feel that I have always been on this constant rediscovery or re-questioning of myself: where I’ve come from, where I am, where I grew up. Where I’m at the present moment, and how I relate that to my past.
H: There is one painting from the show that really struck me, “First Rain in May.” Was the bed frame pictured in it inspired by a bedroom in your grandmother’s house?
AO: Yeah, and the title “First Rain in May” comes from the phrase “la primera lluvia de mayo” — that’s something my grandma used to say, that we had to go out and get wet with the first rain of the month for good luck. Like the other paintings, it started from these other works, based on art historical references, that as I mentioned I didn’t think were successful. When I brought them upstate I started to hash out certain elements, like the bed. This specific work is based on one afternoon when I was little and I woke up in my grandmother’s bed with this sort of rain falling on me inside the bedroom. I say “rain” because I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time, just that raindrops were falling from the ceiling. I later found out the neighbor above us had left their bathtub tap running and it was overflowing, leaking into the room. But that moment between sleeping and waking, of half-dreaming, is a memory that I’ve always taken with me. And now I’m consciously revisiting those memories and reevaluating them and seeing how I can translate them.
H: What’s it like being based in New York and revisiting these moments in the past, while being far from Puerto Rico?
AO: It’s been very overwhelming: thinking about my family, thinking about the island, and of being away from it. I’m not physically experiencing some of these things in the way that other people are — all the disasters, the earthquake, the hurricanes, now the virus, and the government being so highly corrupt — but in a way of course I am, because I am in direct dialogue with them, and I used to travel frequently [before the pandemic]. I kept asking myself how I could help, and I was in the process of building a studio there, in San Juan, that wouldn’t be just a studio where I paint but also a space for culture, community, creative thinking. Could I lend it to someone else to make art for a month? Could it be something more collaborative? But it’s been emotional and challenging to move forward from here, and especially now. A part of me is also very private — I tend to get sensitive and I quickly go back to my studio and close the door and go into my own world.
H: When did you leave Puerto Rico?
AO: I moved to New York between 2009 and 2010, but my first transition was actually from Puerto Rico to Chicago for college, which changed my life. I had studied in the University of Puerto Rico, and suddenly I was at the Art Institute [of Chicago.] I think the most important way in which it impacted me — aside from the cultural impact, and coming to a place where I had no friends or family — was it made me realize that I didn’t know three sh*ts about contemporary art. Nothing. Other students would ask me, “Who is your favorite contemporary artist?” And I’d say, “Jackson Pollock,” and they would burst out laughing. But I didn’t have access to that world in Puerto Rico, I didn’t grow up with art in my family, and the school I went to at that time was quite conservative. Had it not been for one of my professors, who recommended me to the Art Institute, I would have never gotten there.
H: I think that tension, negotiating between two worlds, is part of the diasporic experience, the experience of being culturally bifurcated.
AO: You know, and it’s a very strange feeling. I was brought up in what was very much a working-class family; they weren’t constantly talking to me about history, politics, or art. All they taught me was to be humble and to be grateful. But I feel that culturally, I grew up in a very confusing environment: am I American or am I Puerto Rican? Am I Black, or am I Spanish, or am I Taino, or am I this, or am I that? I don’t think that art necessarily needs to give us an answer to these questions, but we all have the right to turn to art as an exit. To transform those questions into formal aspects.
V: There’s a painting in the show, “Drifting Far From Shore,” that stood out to me because the references to furniture or domestic interiors are less obvious. Did this work also come from memories of your grandmother’s home?
AO: I had a boat like this one years ago, which we call a dingy, in Puerto Rico. I always used it to go fishing by myself, and it was kind of my little escape out there, very personal. When I started making these new paintings, I felt that those works had such a strong relationship to what we’re dealing with now: the solitude, the idea of being alone. It was very curious to see how something that I did back then was very resonant now. Because my grandmother had so many plants around the house, I added these plants around everything — it’s almost like it’s her in the picture.
I’ve used these references to her for many years — they originated from this very personal “grandma’s boy” thing. But in comparison to back then, I don’t speak about them so directly anymore. Tiles, plants, puzzles, bingo games, couches — she always slept on the couch, never on her bed — all these very specific memories, they’ve become something more broad. I’m not just thinking of her. It’s become more mine: a presence of me.
Life During Wartime: Art in the Age of Coronavirus continues online at lifeduringwartimeexhibition.org through December 12. The exhibition was curated by Christian Viveros-Fauné.