There are no human figures in Angel Otero‘s paintings, yet the trace of people is ever-present. A work titled “Naked Island” (2020), for instance, which depicts a wicker rocking chair floating improbably in a bathtub, is a nod to his great-grandmother. Blind and in her 90s when Otero was a child, she, along with his grandmother, raised him in Puerto Rico; the image of a chair in the tub, where she would sit to be bathed, is imprinted in his memory.
You would have to ask Otero about the symbolism in this particular painting to glean such an intimate anecdote from the artist, who shies away from explicit references. It is one of nine currently on view in The Fortune of Having Been There at Lehmann Maupin, an exhibition of works he created between the start of the pandemic and now, based loosely on recollections of his upbringing, notably furniture from his childhood home. Combining traditional brushwork and collage with his idiosyncratic “skins” — sheets of oil paint left to dry on panes of glass, peeled away, and affixed to the surface — he crafts uncanny domestic scenes with sly winks to modern art history.
There are three standout works in this show. “Lucky Mirror” (2020), prominently installed in the gallery’s entrance, is recognizably Otero, a tempestuous jungle of abstract gestures overlaid with some representative forms that achieves cohesion without sacrificing dynamism. The zig-zag shape of an unfinished game of dominoes, for example, carefully rendered against the capricious, variegated background, nevertheless echoes the cadence and rhythm of the surrounding brushstrokes.
Six other works are installed in the second gallery, among them “Fishing Pearls” (2020), a strange bathtime mise-en-scène. A sailboat floats in a porcelain tub, and in the foreground, a little white table is minimally set with a water glass and a vase holding a bejeweled palm leaf. Otero has drenched the floors and walls in shades of vermilion that inevitably bring to mind Matisse’s “L’atelier rouge” (1911). But no sooner has one relished in the sanguine composition than its bizarre components become starkly evident. Why is the only window blacked out, leading nowhere? The space looks like a patchwork of different rooms from different houses, evoking that foreign-yet-familiar sensation that governs dreams; that maybe also governs Otero’s memories.
The masterpiece is “An Angel at My Table (After Exquisite)” (2021), a generously collaged work whose imagery, a checkered cloth-covered table in delightful disarray, is inspired by a painting the artist made over ten years ago. Here, Otero has allowed himself every creative and material liberty. Glued to the surface are textures as diverse as a pigment-stained rag; a fat clump of oil paint; a baseball-themed jigsaw puzzle; bits of aluminum foil; and photographs of a caning pattern that reference both Picasso’s synthetic cubism and, perhaps, his great-grandmother’s wicker chair. Painted flowerpots and plates are suspended in mid-air in this capricious, gravity-defying still life.
Though clearly culled from a past he remembers fondly, Otero views the objects and trinkets in these works as a way into the act of painting rather than lingering on their nostalgic import (“I’m not just thinking of her,” he once told me in an interview, referring to his grandmother, “it’s become more mine.”) Indeed, when we view the canvases in The Fortune of Having Been There, Otero seduces us with the whole as well as the individual parts.
Angel Otero: The Fortune of Having Been There continues through March 7 at Lehmann Maupin (West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).