Mark Ottens, Untitled (circles), 2020.Ink and acrylic on paper, 7.5 x 7.5 inches. $250 (unframed)
I Work at a Desk
I work at a desk. What I do is desk work. A childhood standing lamp provides illumination from the left. The desk I work on was constructed by my father when I was maybe in the first grade. The desk itself is made from a door. I work on a door then.
A door is something we pass through. We go into a door, and we come out of a door.
The surface of the desk is painted blue, a shade of blue that the sea does sometimes take on. At the far side of the sea is the horizon line. That we can see, and the sky above, a backdrop for the varying formation of cloud, the moving of the sun and the soaring of the gulls. What is beneath can only really be imagined. It is a vastness mostly unknowable. Occasionally we are afforded a glimpse. Cast a line, pull out the creature that has taken the bait. The remembrance of the taste of brine. The sound of a conch held to the ear. The slight wiggle of sea cucumber. The mournful solo of an ill-clad shrimp on a cracked half clamshell.
I am working on constructing an endless deck of cards. They are cards for a game that is now forgotten. A deck of cards for a game whose directions have been long ago and forever lost. The rules of play, parameters blurred. The object unknowable. Pitching dice in the dark.
Mark Ottens graduated from the School of Art Institute of Chicago in 1992. He completed his MFA in 1995 at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The UIC, at the time, emphasized conceptual art and painting. Ottens' work became increasingly focused on elements of color, pattern and abstraction. His current work features richly layered patterns that build into jewel like paintings. His work was included in Portrait Society Gallery's group exhibition, "Drawn Out," in 2017. A solo exhibition of his work, "Linger On," was presented at the gallery in 2019. Ottens is also represented by Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago, and previously by Tory Folliard Gallery, Milwaukee.
ARTISTS RESPOND TO MARK OTTEN'S WORK
Each week we ask other artists in the show and sometimes special guests to comment about the featured artist's work.
Almost 30 years ago, I had the opportunity to roam the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago for several uninterrupted days. It was my first exposure to an art museum in the United States. Given the luxury of time, I went out of my way to explore remote corners of the museum that seemed like hidden chambers. One such chamber was the glass paper weight room. Arranged in vitrines on beautifully lit shelves of clear glass, the paper weights glowed like jewels. It is then that I learned about "millefiori"- "mille" (thousand) and "fiori" (flowers) - a glassmaking technique dating to the 7th century and popularized in the 15th and 18th centuries by Italian glassmakers.
Mark Ottens' work made me think of this collection of paper weights after a long time. It seems like he examines the world in "cross sections" like the slice of a stem under a microscope. The labor intensive intricate detail with pops of bright color reminds me of cross sections of multi-colored glass canes gathered and fused together; sliced and rearranged over and over again before being suspended in clear glass spheres forming micro universes. Such work always begs the question, how far can you go in dividing and splitting? Will we ever get to the end or is it an infinite journey?
If I move my eyes over the surface of Mark's drawings, I get a very intriguing spatial experience. They are often laid out in a field pattern that has the ability to go back and forth.
In many of the drawings there are a number of heads. The heads occupy different planes. Some want to come forward and others are very far away. Some come forward initially and then their surroundings push them back. Some seem flat and others are modeled or move between the two.
A film of paint reads as flat and simultaneously might reveal a deep space or suggest a third dimension. The white of the paper is obviously the surface of the paper and yet it reads strongly as space.
Moving my eyes across the surface becomes a kind of music which allows me to experience a variety of distances and dimensions.
Sometimes I go way back and then come forward. Objects feel flat and then modeled. I particularly enjoy moments when a tension exists where I don't know exactly where I should be, when I'm sensing a deep space and simultaneously feeling it come forward.
Tony Nickalls (PSG assistant)
Mark Ottens' drawings combine a number of elements that were seen in his retrospective at Portrait Society Gallery. There are echoes of his early work that reflect his training under some of the Chicago Imagists but also of his developed style of detailed ink drawings of patterns both natural and geometric. When these approaches are combined with his observation of faces, both real and cultural icons, the result is a complex, beautiful image that helps us see humanity afresh.
Lately when I attempt to quiet my breathing and empty my brain I first have to plow through a reckoning with our current reality. This can take a while, and involves breathing in the pain and chaos and breathing out compassion and light for everyone.
When I look at Ottens' work my first thought is here is someone who absolutely loves doing his art. The people and layers are so expressive of our vulnerability right now, and the way everything is entangled. We are inside as we have always been and always will be and there is no getting out of it. The intense color and pattern adds delight, because the thing about us humans is that we are pretty amazing. These drawings are a bittersweet reminder of that.