The first time the artist Angel Otero fell asleep in his new studio, on a slightly battered chaise longue given to him by a neighbour, he was awoken an hour later by the thrumming of bats’ wings. He had bought the building, a whitewashed 19th-century brick church with a shingled spire in the hamlet of Malden-on-Hudson, in New York State’s south-east, in February of last year. Later that month, he removed the 36 wooden pews that filled the 160-square-metre nave, which, together with a similarly sized basement, make up the structure. Leaving the raised wooden altar and functional pipe organ in place at one end, he set up trestle tables for supplies and arranged, between the three-metre-tall arched windows, a few half-finished canvases that he had driven up from his main studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
His broker had shown him this property as a last-ditch attempt to end the artist’s long hunt for more storage space. And though it was draughty and had no plumbing, Otero, 39, immediately coveted it. The year before he’d worked intensely, presenting a new series of large-scale abstract oil works in a solo exhibition at New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery, and he was longing for a place outside of the city to paint in solitude. But, as the bats seemed to remind him that night, and each time they returned over the summer, it’s impossible to feel entirely alone inside a church.
Places of worship are typically built to outlast their parishioners. The steepled Protestant churches in upstate New York are often the oldest buildings in their towns — repositories of local memory, even as their congregations have dwindled. Malden’s was completed in 1867, when it served the families of the workers at the town’s since-closed bluestone factory. The building was deconsecrated in 2016, but many of the hamlet’s 300 or so residents have told Otero about the weddings and baptisms that took place there. Some have also expressed their relief about his preservation plans: he hopes to convert the basement — once the site of a Sunday school — into living quarters with a pair of bedrooms for visiting family and friends, but intends to leave the exterior and main floor mostly unchanged.
There is now a small seating area in front of the altar steps — a spindle-legged 1950s Martin Eisler couch with tufted cream upholstery, and a pair of angular ’60s-era caviuna wood Lina Bo Bardi armchairs — but the empty outlines left by the pews remain on the floor. The large orange, blue and white stained-glass rose window will stay in place, as will the three brass globe chandeliers that illuminate the five-metre-high space as he works.
“I embrace all this history,” says Otero. “I have always tried to mold my creativity and my lifestyle around moments like this.” Indeed, the more time he spends in the studio, the more traces of past occupants he discovers: 19th-century wrought-iron candlesticks in the attic; a forgotten hand fan stashed in the bench of an upright piano; a concealed mural behind the organ. As he uncovers the building’s past, he has found himself increasingly revisiting his own. Otero’s practice is rooted in the idea of layering, a concept that informs both his innovative technique of creating craggy canvases from cut-up strips of dried oil paint and also his subject matter, which is derived from repeated examinations of his memories.
“Being here has put me in a place where I’ve been thinking a lot about back home,” he says, referring to Puerto Rico, where he was born and lived until he left in 2004 to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The paintings he has made since taking over this space, many of which are on display in a new exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, are less abstract than his previous work. They depict pieces of furniture — a sofa, a bathtub, a dining table — that act as gravitational centers for larger clusters of what he describes as “glimpses of feelings or composited moments” from his childhood.
Otero still remembers the experience of going to church with his Catholic grandmother each Sunday when he was young, first in San Juan and later, when the family moved, in the northern town of Bayamón. Though he doesn’t consider himself religious, the aesthetics of those buildings have left a permanent imprint on his imagination. “It was their high ceilings, the windows, the light,” he says, “but there was also a certain creativity in the way they were curated: the stained glass, the sculptures, the pews, the ornaments.” So, while he admits that “as an artist, there’s always a romanticized idea of making work in an old factory or loft,” one can also sense that, no matter how long and necessary the search, he would have chosen a church over a warehouse — the baroque and impractical over the utilitarian — every time.