Angel Otero: The Scarlet Self
There are entire worlds—entire existences—suspended within there, floating up to gazes which have been detached long enough—or ran down, heaving and glassy eyed, caned and fatigued—to pick up on such things, looming forms ascending like the prophetic pyramid out of the cuttlefish-ink abyssal underbelly of an 8-ball, rising and falling and materializing out of the blood brume; there are entire continents, cream continents adrift in an angry sea of cadmium, a granular expanse—as if someone chunked up a block of anatomist's arterial wax, dumped it into a pneumatic cannon, and proceeded to broadside raw canvas—ripe for pareidolia. Their borders are fringed, cloudy, a particulate demarcation of crimson gnats, and that fuzz is really what the fuss is all about, an adroit—if blatant, once one sees it—analogue to the fungible nature of perception, memory, and self; there are images contained within the blood brumes, although it is only by the grace of Angel Otero's exposition that we are privy to this, as they have been translated, riven, reconstituted, and then pressed—like a witch!—into their current, beautifully abused form; these were photographs once, the ultimate form of mimesis, until a triturator has placed his hands upon them, riven them, splayed them…and look at the bloody, powdery mess made of ipseity now! – B. David Zarley, Chicago Contributor
In abstracting a person's self—in this case, primarily his own—into fantastic cartography, Otero's monochromatic Kavi Gupta exhibition, Lago, dismantles and ruminates on not only the very essence of photography—and one of photography's primary reasons for being/it's greatest strength, the preservation, as if in amber, of memory—but also the memories enclosed in said photographs, and, more importantly, the self worth derived from said memories; in essence, Otero has shredded his own autobiography via process, a potent action which can be—ever so fittingly—comprehended and contextualized in as many multifarious ways as there are observers.
Perhaps the emulsion of his Puerto Rican heritage into a sanguineous mélange is indicative of the brutal absorption of Latin American cultures and customs into the United States; a spilling of the melting pot onto canvas, so to speak. Perhaps the red is not blood or violence but revolution, a defiant shattering of faithful history; perhaps it is blood itself, a defiant vivisecting and spreading, each immense canvas an expansive thoracotomy akin to the Milwaukee Deep; perhaps the red is neither violence nor proud revolution but passion, the simple catholic kind so endemic of humanity as to be practically taxonomic, and Lago a metaphorical exploration of how the cumulative affectivity of our sundry emotions irrevocably alter—in some instances, completely re-arrange—our memories and therefore our sense of self, leaving a true, Platonic you an impossibility.
Otero does not deign to tell us which of these interpretations is correct, a distinction which would not only be unnecessary but also, via its absence, fosters an anonymity and amorphousness that allows Lago, despite its inherently personal subject matter, to be understood via unique and intimate observer's loupes.
Lago does, in fact, do all of those things, and in the painting's creation, it does one more, a kind of meta-art commentary on photography and mimesis. Otero began the paintings by projecting an image—oftentimes one from his adolescence on Puerto Rico—onto a canvas-sized sheet of paper. After copying the image in silicone, the replication was used as a plate, pressed with uncut powdered cadmium and creating images which, while being of the photos, do not resemble them in the slightest, instead looking for all the world like pachyderm skin or rictus spermatozoa or striated muscle, lines and heads and divots and fat, swollen granules, broken and rubbed raw in off-white abrasions, the entire thing shimmering like moth scales or youth or Halazone reminiscence. (That Otero has chosen cadmium red as his one color is a pun worthy of Nabokov; famed for their brilliance, the cadmium pigments are also prone to fading when exposed to air on certain media, prolonged exposure—when lacking the proper foundation—causing them to deteriorate, color-fastness-cum-existential crisis.)
As in our ipseity, it is in the barely noticeable defects that one can find not only the truest sense of pulchritude and character, but also the flaws which actually grant any single piece—in an exhibition which can feel monolithic—a singular existence; it is the small, cobalt marbles ensconced within the blood haze of Tatara, for example, that make it it; those shocking flashes of something which should not be there become, when one is surrounded by the towering and faux-uniform—like a beach visited on consecutive mornings, the pieces are not identical; they are just such beautiful abstractions—with such imprecise, albeit large, nuances—as to blend into one another, becoming an almost intractable colonial whole, like, once again, memory and the self—comforting points with which to anchor.
Lago is the beautifully violent triumph over the persistence of memory. In not only fracturing the autobiographical narrative—and it's most slavish visual art form, photography—but subjecting it to peine forte et dure, Otero reveals—and revels in—the inherent vice of the human condition.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) and at bdavidzarley.com.