Catherine Jozwik
Visual Art

Crazy Cartoonish Colors

Artist Mark Ottens geometric paintings and drawings are loose yet precise, fun but enigmatic.

By - Mar 29th, 2019 03:24 pm
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Conduit by Mark Ottens. Photo courtesy of the Portrait Society Gallery.

Conduit by Mark Ottens. Photo courtesy of the Portrait Society Gallery.

Mark Ottens’ hypnotic, painstakingly-layered geometric paintings and drawings have a meditative effect on his audiences–each invite viewers to pause and appreciate every line, angle and curve.

Aptly titled Linger On, Ottens’ current exhibit, on display at the Portrait Society Gallery through April 27, features dozens of the artist’s works, among them paintings, drawings and sculptures, spanning from his days as a Chicago art student to present day. Ottens received a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1992 and an M.F.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1995 and lives in Oostburg, WI.

The exhibit begins with a wall of paintings dedicated to the artist’s early work, inspired by fellow Imagist artists Roy Yoshida, Julia Fish, Ted Hawkins, and Phyllis Bramson, with whom Ottens studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In his poetically-worded artist’s statement, Ottens reveals that he was one of the few painters in graduate school, amidst a sea of conceptual and installation artists.

At UIC, “painting was considered suspect. Most who started as painters ended as installation artists. I left still painting. I was then making odd image-based paintings, and figured I always would,” he wrote.

In works including 1998’s “Idiot, Poet, Malefactor,” a variety of motifs likely inspired by the pop culture of Ottens’ childhood, including clowns and cartoon characters like Porky Pig and Fred Flintstone, share brightly-colored canvases with fruits and vegetables, human faces, sea creatures, and collage-like shapes—a predecessor to the artist’s more recent work. Ottens has made an economical choice, using (possibly recycled) upholstered fabric for canvases.

Visitors are invited to flip through several of the artist’s sketchbooks and notebooks, filled with ink and acrylic drawings, and stream-of-consciousness writing.

As time went on, Ottens’ work grew more and more abstract, a decision he further expanded on in his artist’s statement:

“Over the years, I became disillusioned with the figures and characters featuring in my paintings. In the end, they let me down. I didn’t believe in them anymore, and I came finally to not understand why it was I was painting them,” he wrote.

Using as many as 30 layers of jewel-toned acrylic paint, artist’s tape, and high-gloss varnish, Ottens has created precise paintings that look three-dimensional and echo a number of artist’s techniques, including decoupage and collage. In these works, among them 2019’s “Miterwort,” and “Minim,” 2017’s “Conduit,” and 2016’s “Geodetic,” Ottens seems to pay homage to the symmetry and form found in fabrics, nature and engineering. Eleven geometrically-painted small sculptures, created out of scrap pieces of wood (some partially damaged by termites), add an additional, multi-dimensional aspect to the exhibit.

Ottens’ black-and-white pen and ink drawings, some of which (“Verbena,” “Inflorescence,” “Monadnock,”) incorporate bits of vividly-colored acrylic paint, appear to be elaborate doodles that contrast with the crisp exactness of the shapes present in most of his paintings—echoing the free-flowing nature of the artist’s writing. These drawings, with all of their shading and intertwined circulines, could be viewed as maps or urban landscapes. Some, like an untitled work, depict human faces around a globe and an eclectic mix of imagery, bringing to mind 1960s rock album covers like The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Ottens’ works, which meld meticulous craftsmanship with thoughtful detail and alluring colors, are a fascinating treat. But they do benefit from lingering. Viewers would do well to give them a second—or third—look to fully take in and enjoy the paintings and drawings.

Linger On Gallery

Mark Ottens, Linger On, on display at the Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., Suite 526, through April 27.

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