Erik Otto is an abstract artist living and working in New York City. Known for his distinctive use of color and texture, looking at Otto’s work feels almost visceral. In his latest body of original artwork, Otto utilizes a broad spectrum of media – from sand to neon lights – to create a collection of paintings expressing the many symbolic qualities of water. Read below to learn more about the new multimedia collection, the artist’s unique process, and his plans for the future.
Erik Otto: These paintings are a part of ongoing series that I began back in the summer of 2018. After noticing many of my life philosophies could be related back to water, I decided to double down on the theme and produce a collection of paintings expressing the many symbolic qualities of the most important natural element. Pools of color, fluid washes and rippling patterns contrasted by large incidental marks depict the turbulent and serene, while signature elements ebb and flow to communicate a moment of flux as a powerful time of growth.
The surface and light pieces are a direct influence from an extensive amount of traveling to Mexico and now currently living in New York City. Both locations are an endless source of textural inspiration and NYC puts on a show every night with its dazzling lights. I have incorporated lights in my work for well over 10 years, but this new direction explores the possibilities of light as a medium in a very different way. I stumbled upon it after a day of testing out some raw materials I found in the basement of my building that I then added neon to that were leftover from a previous project. The result felt like I uncovered something refreshingly new that was there all along.
1x: Tell us a bit more about your recent show, where many of these works were featured.
Otto: I recently took over a space in Soho/Chinatown area in Manhattan with the support from Wallplay Network in NYC. I set out to make a body of work with no real finish line to give myself the necessary time to dig deeper in my studio practice and develop new ideas I was compelled to try. After 8 months in, I was running out of space to keep going and the work felt solid, so it felt right to finally share it. Wallplay granted me this wonderful raw cement and brick space, where I displayed the largest amount of work I have ever shown at one time. To add to the show, some friends and I built a standalone room that viewers crawled into revealing an inner universe made of neon lights, mirrors and fabric. I tricked out the front of the gallery with plants, colored films and lights that altered the experience depending on the time of day. And I also did two firsts — worked with sound designer David Baldwin to develop an ambient soundscape, and tracked down a custom essential oil that filled the space. Needless to say, it was a ton of work, but the project has led to a major career growth and ongoing collaborations.
1x: What materials were used to create these original pieces?
Otto: I have two distinct formats that have evolved over the years, but generally I use synthetic polymers and enamels with added mediums (sand, powders, glass beads, slow dry fluids) along with a growing list of aerosols (glitters, fluorescents, transparents, metallics). There’s almost no medium I haven’t experimented with, and when needed, I make custom tools to apply or manipulate the paint.
Building off the theme of water, the goal was to utilize a color palette, movement, and a type of mark-making that pushed the theme. The more recent textural work has introduced cement, plaster, grout, rock salt and gravel contrasted by white or colored neon lights. The whole concept is based on creating a sense of unexpected wonder.
1x: What things you have tried to keep as your work continues to evolve, and what things you are working to shed?
Otto: I currently find myself wanting to step back from traditional painting — which has been something I felt very comfortable with — to really push the sculptural work to the forefront. Even in its early stages, I have become flooded with ideas in which I want to slowly introduce. I’m also well aware how pursuing this shift in medium will in turn influence my canvas work and I am eager to build a conversation between the two.
1x: How long do your paintings typically take to create from start to finish?
Otto: The romantic answer would be that I slave over these pieces endlessly until they’re done, but really, it’s hard to say as I work in layers that sometimes take days to dry and I often work on multiple things at once. I push and pull the many different forms intuitively, building a composition until it feels resolved — sometimes it can happen in a single week, but I have been known to continue to rework the same piece well over a year.
1x: What is unique about these pieces compared with your other work?
Otto: For the sculptural work, the answer is obviously the use of raw materials and neon. I think a blessing, and maybe a challenge with the way I create, is how I tend to combine a wide array of formats making each collection of work very unique from the last. I do it to stay curious, but sometimes continual reinvention gets exhausting. It seems to work though… and luckily I love to learn.
1x: Describe this collection in one gut reaction word.
1x: It’s been a bit since our last release and you have been staying busy. Bring us up to speed on what you’ve been up to.
Otto: Perhaps too busy and one thing I continue to learn is that I can’t do it all on my own. Beyond the development of the work itself, this last year has been a lot about building relationships with people to help support my work through various channels in areas beyond my physical reach. I took a long break from murals and commissions to focus on my studio practice and I look forward to getting back to that kind of work in 2020. I have some really exciting projects in motion, and I don’t want to jinx them, but I am gearing up to put my design work back to use to release a collaborative capsule collection and design a few everyday objects.
1x: What are some of the ways you’ve been trying to push yourself as of late?
Otto: To be present and support others more. The pressure to always be ON all of the time can be stifling and I have been motivated to break up my usual long studio days to get out there, ride my bike, see the world, attend openings, learn a new language, or even just make it a point to have that drink with that one friend.
1x: Any recent artists (new or old/sonic/visual/otherwise) that have been inspiring you as of late?
Otto: Too many to name, but overall I’m loving the blending of genres. I have been a huge fan of Olafur Eliasson since his show at SFMOMA in 2007 for his use of scale and light. As well, sculpture and installation artists Jose Davila and Janet Elcheman and a wide variety of painters past and present — Helen Frankenthaler, Ed Clark, Mark Bradford, Mary Weatherford, Jose Parla, Hugo McCloud, Heather Day, and Jason Revok to name a few.
1x: What was the last piece of art that you bought?
Otto: A tattoo from an old friend for my left thigh in Portland and I just put a down payment on a custom pendant necklace from another friend who makes awesome silver jewelry out of New Mexico. It’s been a while since I purchased a traditional painting since I move a lot, but hope to change that.
1x: Any big shows or events coming up that you’d like to share?
Otto: I have a 2-person show at the beautiful Heron Arts space in my hometown of San Francisco early August. The work will be centered around the use of color and light as therapy. Expect a lot of new neon artwork.