Vito Schnabel Gallery is pleased to present Angel Otero: The Ocean in My Room, an exhibition of recent paintings that revolve around the symbolism of rising water, a recurring motif intimately linked to the artist’s personal history and memories of growing up on the island of Puerto Rico. Opening on December 27, 2023, Angel Otero: The Ocean in My Room will be on view through February 10, 2024 at Vito Schnabel Gallery’s St. Moritz location. It is the artist’s first show with the gallery and his first solo presentation in Switzerland.
Over the last decade, Otero has developed an innovative painting technique that foregrounds the materiality of his medium, applying oil paint to sheets of plexiglass in layers, allowing them to dry, then scraping the resulting “oil skins” off and affixing them to canvas. The eight large-scale works on view in The Ocean in My Room exemplify the artist’s distinctive blend of magical realism and gestural abstraction, featuring an intimate yet elusive lexicon of recurring domestic motifs—such as dentures in a water glass, crocheted lace curtains, and toy boats—combined into dreamlike tableaux.
Otero constructs each work in reverse order, first painting the foregrounds on plexiglass and subsequently building up the middle and background layers one by one. After stabilizing the paint with a layer of mesh, he scrapes the entire composition off the plexi and transfers the composition to canvas, then collages smaller objects, painted individually on separate sheets of plexi, onto the surface. At once exacting and unpredictable, Otero’s process invites an element of chance into each painting, as the act of scraping and shifting the oil paint introduces accidents and distortions, resulting in enigmatic scenes that suggest the hazy, fragmentary quality of memory.
The paintings in The Ocean in My Room take water as a kind of protagonist, reflecting on its multiple resonances as an element that is both life-giving and destructive, metaphorically rich yet utterly mundane. For Otero, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, water is inextricably bound to his familial history and childhood memories, from the view of the ocean near his grandmother’s home to the torrential rainstorms and rising floodwaters that were a regular occurrence during hurricane season, to the routine of collecting rainwater to compensate for gaps in the local infrastructure.
Suggesting a fantastical take on the turbulent maritime paintings of Winslow Homer, The Sea (2023) depicts a white clawfoot bathtub fully submerged in a tempestuous seascape, its outlines emerging as a ghostly trace against the roiling water—an effect achieved by painting the sea first and adding the bathtub as an additional layer behind it. A black upright piano bobs like a bath toy along the surface of the water, confounding any clear sense of scale, much like the massively oversized paper airplane floating on the surface of the water in Rain Delay (2023), which dwarfs a nearby set of dentures.
The piano, which recurs in many of the paintings in the exhibition, is based on one from Otero’s studio, a former church building in upstate New York where the artist spent most of the pandemic working in isolation. In Water Waltz (2023), the piano is set adrift within a rough red sea, a meticulously rendered paint bucket resting on the top of the instrument. The ominousness of the scene, with its pitch-black horizon and blood-colored water, is simultaneously heightened and deflated by the presence of toy sailboats circling like sharks. Often in these works, the piano doubles as a pedestal displaying cryptic objects: for instance, in Before I Wake (2023), dentures floating in a glass of water sit atop the piano, on the verge of being swallowed by a cresting wave, the scene incongruously framed by an intricate rendering of a floral lace curtain running along the sides of the canvas.
Other paintings on view are similarly situated within ambiguous spaces that blur the boundaries between interior and exterior. Fishing Poems (2023)– a close-up of a crashing wave on the verge of engulfing a dining chair, is stacked with buckets, one of which bears a single eye peering out at its surroundings.
Many of the furnishings depicted in these works are derived from Otero’s memories of the spaces of his childhood, obliquely standing in for family members and friends. Birth of an Island (2023) is a closely cropped view of a bright yellow sofa covered with red roses, its cheery pattern contrasting with the dark churning water and shadowy ground that surrounds it, leaving it to the viewer to determine whether the scene depicts a domestic space in the process of being destroyed by a flood or if the furniture is floating in the open sea. The sofa, based on one in the artist’s grandmother’s house, appears again in La Siesta (2022), this time set against patterned ceramic tiles commonly found in many Puerto Rican homes, the intricate designs deriving from 16th century Spanish tiles, a relic of the island’s colonial history under Spanish rule. Placed around the couch are a fallen grandfather clock, a rotary phone off the hook, and a tabletop radio, hinting at the aftermath of a recent disaster whose specifics remain just out of reach.