Angel Otero: Swimming Where Time Was
On ViewHauser & Wirth
Swimming Where Time Was
November 10–December 23, 2022
You have to understand that Angel Otero’s aesthetic is one of coordinates and proximity, of Puerto Rico and Chicago, that he draws from to develop and maintain its own kind of parallel to the canon. It’s alienation enacted as a force, haptic transgression as a modernist sidestep, a restive and resistant capability formed out of a distance from the discourse, an energy that still undergirds his current show Swimming Where Time Was at Hauser & Wirth: to celebrate all of it, never forget it, let everyone know about it.
There may be no better example of a product of Chicago’s transgression, specifically the ethos of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), than Otero. James Yood, the only critic that Chicago was allowed for many years, said that Chicago’s art scene won third place in a race of two cities. He related it to the youngest sibling who gets left at home after their older siblings had gone off to college, left stewing in their lack of attention, and finally able to cut loose and get weird in their absence. When Otero went there in the mid-aughts, SAIC was as anomalous as an art institution could be—an aesthetic enclave of strange bodies, of funky odors and secretions, of subversive and pleasurable abjection—that purposefully nurtured repulsion as a shibboleth meant to keep out professionalization and the careerists. SAIC’s Columbus Building, where most of the painting and drawing classes were held, was a puerile paradise, so grody that the institution had given up on trying to clean it: where graffiti and perverse drawings were features, not flaws, and the halls reeked of oil paint sludge. It luxuriated in its filth. It was dirty and felt ready to reject the art world before it could be rejected.
The faculty preserved the tension in the spaces of its anarchy, trying to keep its subversive energy untamed, preferring the radical and alien subjectivity that an island without authority figures might produce. The professors, young and almost entirely adjuncts, would get high with the students before and after class, would invite them to host chaotic shows in their studios, and encourage them to start apartment shows wherever they had space to do it. Michelle Grabner, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, José Lerma, Tyson and Scott Reeder, and Dana DeGiulio were among the young faculty trying to keep the raucous counterculture not just persisting, but seething, waiting to see what could be born out of undelineated spaces—where authority is given up and refuses to assert itself.
You are taught different artists in Chicago: Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Ray Yoshida, Gladyss Nilsson, Sueellen Rocca, the Monster Roster, and the Hairy Who—all artists who looked for source material in the campy and queer subcultures that you weren’t supposed to draw from, picking the strangest colors and textures they could find to rattle the spine of the viewer and overload the nervous system. Destroy The Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962 at the MCA in 2013 would later become a kind of rallying cry. It basks in the contrarian aesthetic of a second city, disagreeable and refusing all available paths—saying the wrong thing at the right time, wearing the same dirty shirt too many days in a row because you’re just going to end up at the studio anyway, in a distant outlier that gets so brutally cold in the winter that you figure out quickly who your real friends are.
So when Otero comes to Chicago from Puerto Rico, he’s arriving at an outpost from another outpost; coming from a territory ambivalent to American authority and a place that must have felt light years away from Hauser & Wirth. Otero seemed uniquely capable of understanding a city of outsiders, of coming into Chicago and recognizing it for what it was. He understood what it was like trying to make a painting when you were unable to afford a tube of paint, but you’d never know it from those fearless skinned up paintings he made there that hosted abandon as its primary condition. He started using leftover paint skins in a way that translated the gnarliness of the Columbus building, evoked the scraped-off crud at the edges of a palette, and began making paintings out of what is usually cut adrift from itself—building up paintings from some of the marginal and subaltern recesses of what is often kept invisible. They were writhing undead tears and folds, archaeologies of the haptic revulsions of odors and textures of painting. The lines of his work snarled and tangled in a way that Chicago saw itself in, and for the living members of the Hairy Who, it felt like the torch had been picked up by a younger generation. He became a legend.
There still feels like there’s a lot riding on it—to stay weird and charging out to represent both Chicago and Puerto Rico, to remain disagreeable and stay a moving target even at the warm cultural center of Hauser & Wirth, to burn your eyes with color and club heavy shapes into them. The best paintings in the show, Mi Acuario (2022) and One Hundred Dreams from Now (2022), are paintings that keep the directness of drawings. Space keeps collapsing in on you, forms of occlusion and mirage within the psychic spaces of shutters and dentures that marked the memories of his childhood in Concerto (2022). It feels immanent as memory but withheld, and for once Otero is setting the brash and discordant punk registers aside to give himself time to reflect on his beginnings, to let himself remember where he’s been and where he’s come from. There’s a revulsion to any stability, a distrust of cohesion that doesn’t allow anything to become too easy or familiar. The churning materiality of Rauschenberg’s Charlene (1954) comes to mind, but also the type of awkward clubby shapes of Albert Oehlen’s Auch Einer (Another One) (1985) that hangs in the MCA. It’s contrarian, but not without a point to it. It’s to sustain something by resisting easy access, holding out, to develop what Heidegger would refer to as intimacies, or spaces where contradictions are pressed and held together to produce meaning. In this case, it’s Otero’s intimacies with the feelings of living in the margins of places left unconsidered and channeling that into something that demands it but doesn’t need it. The margins of the paintings flood the center which cannot hold, trying to decide between uninhibited energy and stepping in as an electrical ballast to form a picture—intangible but integral, a synaptic, unyielding pulse. Otero celebrates what got him here.