In the Studio With Angel Otero

by Danny Kopel, May 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011. 2pm: Artwrit sat down with Angel Otero to discuss his recent show of paintings at Lehmann Maupin, his influences, process, thoughts on the art world, and the brave new direction he is paving with his work. Audio + transcript below.

Angel Otero: Hi everyone. My name is Angel Otero. I’m raised and born in Puerto Rico, but now based in Brooklyn, New York – actually and this morning we’re in my studio in the area of Buswick. I’m mostly a painter. I show with Lehmann Maupin Gallery and also with Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago.

Artwrit: Let’s start with the present moment, your most recent work. What we’re you working on this morning?

Actually this morning we are all working around this installation that is going to take place in the Brooklyn Museum for the Brooklyn Gala, Brooklyn Ball. They selected like around 8 or 10 artists to make this kind of installation or festive installation for the benefit they are going to throw… on each of their dining tables. So I have a forty-foot long dining table that I’m going to be recreating some sort of leftover dinner or party, so people are going to have their dinner on top of a leftover mess or something like that.

Fantastic. So, tell me about your recent show at Lehmann Maupin, which closed on the April 17th. This is your first solo show in New York, I believe. What was the experience like, coordinating, installing, attention from the press, selling and uninstalling a major show at a prestigious gallery.
Well, the show was called Memento. It was mostly… I wanted it to be mostly based around this process where I kind of scrape oil paint out of glass, or my paintings out of glass and then collage them onto canvas. So, you know, the main thing around the show was based on process, let’s say. It took me not too long actually ‘cause they gave me the news, or asked me to do the show, maybe 2 and a half months in advance, and I said, “Yes, I’m an artist. I love working under pressure. For some reason it works better for me.” So, I said yes and the space in the Lower East Side I thought was gorgeous. And it was available, so I went for it. I did a maquette of the gallery, a. I did a lot of sketches, you know, for what I wanted it to be… the body of work. And, it was a bit nerve-wracking—that’s how you would say it—but I have some, you know, great people here to help me in the studio. And, I was very happy with the installation; the gallery was very open, very respectful to the work and to me. The response was totally overwhelming in a good way, something I obviously didn’t expect it although I know, you know, there was a lot of energy and work done behind the actual show. I guess it’s always like that for your first show in New York; you get nervous about it, you’re not sure that to expect from the big city, and the artworld can be a little harsh sometimes, so… But, I guess the end results were good. Very positive. It was a good experience, it really was.

Let’s back track a little bit. I wanted to ask you: How does one make the leap from insurance salesman to full-time painter?
I think about that a lot. It was a strong shift for me. I’ve always been good… I don’t think I’m a good salesman, but I’ve been good with people, and interacting with people, and being an insurance agent, you know that attitude, that humbleness helped me a lot. But honestly I’ve painted since six years old, and I use to paint all the time, late at night after coming from work. It was kind of uncomfortable ‘cause where I come from there’s a lot of judgment, and I didn’t want the people who I work with as an insurer to knew I was a painter ‘cause they will see me like, I don’t know, in some negative way, or they will make fun of me, whatever, and then I didn’t want my friend painters to know that I was an insurance agent ‘cause I was winning decent money, and had, I guess, a new car, and I didn’t want them to judge me for being whatever… I don’t know. But, it was hard, I guess, in an economical decision way, it was hard ‘cause I was helping my family a lot, and I was doing, I guess, well, but I wanted it so bad to try… to try, let’s say that, to try to become an artist, and try to make it happen and live out of it, ‘cause it really was my passion always — and I was intrigued on what the art world was outside from Puerto Rico, and I just quit. I, you know, just said, “fuck it,” and quit. I went to Chicago,and now I’m in New York. So, I guess it was a good decision.

So we’re in your studio right now, in Bushwick. Describe a typical working day here.
Well, usually we start here around ten in the morning. I’m here with mostly two assistants, and we are working on a lot of, say, process-based parts of the work but in the afternoon, most of the time, everyone leaves and late at night I come back and I try to do some drawing or some painting. I don’t like really painting in front of, not even my assistant. I think it’s a very personal moment for me, and I’m really, I feel totally out of the zone, and I don’t like people around me ‘cause I feel, I think it feels, you know, stupid or I look stupid, I think, because I’m totally zoned out, mouth opened and eyes out of it. The typical day is that, just working on different things at the same time with them, and then late at night just me alone in the studio.

You to started to talk about this, but I wanted to ask you: what’s it like when you are engrossed in your process, when you’re truly engaged in the act of making?
I believe in– Well, I feel sometimes time pauses for a second, and I’m just into whatever in the moment I’m doing, not really thinking about nothing. I’m not sure about what kind of emotions are happening or nothing like that. I’m just intrigued on analyzing what’s happening in front of me. I follow my impulses towards every decision in the moment. It’s just me, like I said before. I really don’t like having no around me at those moments; even if it’s a painting, which mostly it is or if some sort of decision for an installation; at least if there’s someone I really don’t want interruption or no one looking at me, but it’s a very… it kind of grabs a lot of energy from you, you know, a lot, and you looked at it so many times, twice as much as looking at anything else, you know, you look pretty much beyond of what you have in front of you ‘cause you kind of, gotta think a little bit on future, how you going to say that, before doing any kind of mark or any decision, you kind of brain storm in you head for seconds, sometimes how things will look before approaching it, so that’s a pretty strong exercise to win.

More specifically, what’s the process of the oil skins?
The idea behind it, I think is more… the process is a way of me disconnecting myself or at least the obviousness between me and the relationship of me towards the narrative, or the connection or personal connection with me and what’s behind the work. I think the artworld… sentimentality is sort of double-edged in the art world. And, I’m very shy at the same time. I don’t like being so exposed or so– I like being honest, I just don’t like being so obvious or direct with things that I feel or, you know, emotions. I don’t like showing emotions so directly in the work, and so the process takes something that is very direct, but the paintings start being very traditional. I paint on glass, and I’ve painted this imagery that most of the time is very representational imagery that maybe has to do with, I don’t know, anything personal. After doing that I pretty much put its through a process of covering it with more oil paint and then later, after a month or something, this painting that I did, I scraped it out of the glass and that action of scrapping it, because it’s oil paint it’s pretty much wet on the inside, it blurs down all the imagery that was done sometimes to the point of becoming a total abstract piece. The same with the text pieces also. So, it kind of… besides from challenging the medium and the whole history of oil painting ‘cause obviously I can do this with acrylic, would be half the price of what I spend, but its not really what it’s about, it’s about confronting the history of oil painting, trying to push the medium to the, you know, the more limits I can, and then the personal part to try to blur it down as much as possible in order for me to feel safe.

I’ve read that you were quite naive about art, specifically the history of art when you first started school in Chicago, yet to me your work is infused with so many influences — post-minimalism, abstract expressionism. How intentionally did you incorporate these influences?
I think coming to Chicago in some ways so ignorant about art history mostly about contemporary art, I think it put me on a spot where I was hungry to learn, to know more about what’s happening now in the artworld and who’s who, and why they were who they were towards the artworld, and put me on a position of analyzing what I was doing and what I was trying to become, and so, I guess over my period of education in Chicago, I tried so many things in order to kind of experiment or have that experience of each of those things you just said, I tried with formalism, minimalism… I knew already a lot about abstract expressionism, so obviously it was something that was really in me and I keep doing it in some way, but I think, I took a little bit of everywhere. I took a lot from different artists, eventually that put me in a position where I found myself in doing something that I felt was very me, and at the same time very honest, and at the same time very challenging.

What does it mean to be a painter — an oil painter no less — in the digital age? Do you see technology a threat to traditional media?
It could be a threat maybe for different historical things that obviously are very, have a huge weight of its traditions, but I see it more as a challenge. I don’t think one thing could stop the other, you know in some way the same thing happened with photography. People thought painting was dead and what happen is that painting at the end of the day just took photography and converted it into some kind of tool for its own creation. So, I don’t really see it as a threat, more like a challenge.

From where you stand, what is the artist’s role in society?

It’s a tough one.
That’s a super tough one. I don’t know. I think it’s a mirror, and it’s also some sort of personal reaction towards something, but… it’s a tough question, you know. I have to analyze a lot of myself ‘cause sometimes I don’t know. Personally me, what my role out there as an artist in the world? I maybe know what I’m trying personally, but I guess at the end of the day you question yourself. What are you bring in the world? are you trying to change the world or are you just trying to do what you love? And even that second one is a beautiful example towards the world, accepting that.

Thank you so much for your time.
It was a pleasure; it’s cool.

Interview: Daniel Kopel
Audio and transcript: Jason Shrier