Published September 17th, 2019 at 7:30 AM
Angel Otero routinely punctuates his sentences with “it’s dope” and a chuckle.
The 38-year-old artist from Santurce, Puerto Rico, is larger than life, but his mixed-media installation “Diario” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is even larger. It’s his largest work to date. The commissioned work is the fourth in the museum’s Atrium Project series curated by Erin Dziedzic, director of curatorial affairs at the Kemper Museum.
“(‘Diario’) felt like it was the next chapter of someone’s diary,” says Dziedzic, who helped the artist choose the title.
“Diario” is part of Otero’s newest body of work, which is partly autobiographical, fueled by nostalgia and connection to family – in particular his grandmother.
“I’m a…grandma boy,” he says, flashing a grin. Then he lays his right arm on the table to reveal a tattooed portrait of her on his forearm.
“She was the only one who was a really big fan of me painting,” he says. “Everyone freaked out except my grandma.”
She died four years ago, so Otero held onto some of her knick-knacks. Because of her, he believes objects hold power, which is part of the reason why he’s recycled his old works and combined them with antiques.
For nearly one year, Otero collected antiques from the Kansas City area that reminded him of his grandma’s house in Puerto Rico. He grew up in Ocean Park on one of the most popular streets in Santurce – Calle Loiza. As a child he was fascinated with the old and distressed – it’s almost like they’re tangible links to history.
Elements of home, “like weird dining tables, weird flower pots, puzzles,” have been represented in his art before, but not like this. This time, he took scrapped pieces of his old paintings and began to patch those together and then filled holes with antiques. The result was a physical representation of memory fragments – flashes of childhood games and kitschy home decor.
“If you were to say, ‘I’m going to write a memory,’ you can never really put it the right way it was,” Otero says. “You have the right feeling, but … there’s all these interesting gaps as we grow.”
Art wasn’t the obvious career choice.
When Otero was in his early 20s, his father took him to take a test to become an insurance agent. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was a job. He had the money, the house, the car, but he wanted more.
“Seeing books, and artist in their lofts in New York and I was like, ‘I always wanted to do that’,” he says.
One day, an alumnus from the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago saw his work and wrote a letter to the school about “the kid who dropped out and had a portfolio.” The arts institute offered Otero a scholarship and, in 2003, he left the island for the Midwest.
“It was quite a cultural shock. I was all alone. I had no friends, no family – no nothing,” Otero recalls.
But almost 20 years later, the artist has become known for his experimental methods and kinetic works. He even developed a process while at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago that consists of dried, crinkled oil paint laid over canvas. He calls the texture “oil skins,” which is dried up oil paint, scraped off pieces of glass placed on canvas.
Through incorporating this process with found objects, Otero says, “I have learned slowly that my work is definitely about me, my relationship to family and relationship to history.”
This theme is also what inspired the collaboration between the artist and Cafe Sebastienne chef Rick Mullins. Emails back and forth revealed meals that Otero loved – and his grandma made – as a child, which resulted in a five-course meal on Aug. 23. (The photos below were taken by Kenny Johnson.)
Course one: A reinterpretation of Otero’s grandmother’s grilled cheese sandwich, with 100% American cheese
Course two: A take on bacalaitos – typically salt cod fritters – except with salted hybrid bass with annatto aoili, plantains and peppers.
Course three: Arroz con gandules – rice with pigeon peas – except fried and topped with the artist’s mother’s sofrito, trout bacon, oregano and cilantro.
Course four: Pernil al horno – oven-roasted pork shoulder on a bed of arina de maiz, okra and summer squash.
Course five: Ice cream sandwich made with polvorones, Puerto Rican shortbread cookies, and flan de queso ice cream.
Otero’s mixed-media painting “Diario” is at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and will be on display until July 19, 2020.