JOHNNY OTTO / Contemporary Art
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Explosive. Aggressive. Primitive. Ingenuous. Transformative.
"One can see the Neo-Expressionistic, wild-child, intense subjectivity and rough handling of acrylic paint and markers that Basquait favored, but Otto definitely has his own style. His figures are like massive fertility Goddesses dancing wildly and free." - Chris Anison, Art Reveal Magazine
“I see a postmodern man shaking off his false identities and dancing naked in front of the primordial fire.” - Amber Christianson, Artist
Despite our gender, male and female energy is entwined, conjoined, the yin-yang of our spirit. X and Y chromosomes in a dance. I've explored this idea in countless ways throughout the last two decades. I do feel that masculine and feminine spirit is alive in each of us in different degrees. In our culture, we see it everywhere. In my art is very prevalent. Bodies are both male and female. Eyes, lips, lips, genitals are often represented in both male and female forms. It is said that we are all female in the womb until the SYR Gene is activated. This means that if the SRY gene is not activated, the female phenotype and physical appearance - which means clitoris instead of penis - will persist.
In the beginning, my greatest inspiration came from numerous visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts with my father, as a child, where we would see the distorted faces that Pablo Picasso painted and the rooms filled with African Masks and fertility statues, which seemed to have lives of their own. They seemed to be designed to reflect the primitive core of who we are as a species. They were naked, unashamed, primitive. As far as Picasso's work, 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon', Picasso's masterpiece, was a great influence. Later, as a teen, I became influenced by my older brother Eric's collection of wooden African Masks that covered every inch of his bedroom walls. Although they were just made of wood, they seemed alive. They seemed to contain the spirit of our earliest ancestors. Eric died at the age of 39, quite suddenly and unexpectedly. When I heard the news, I nearly fainted. That’s when my art really shifted. Perhaps his spirit is in me somehow. I don’t know. We weren’t that close, truth be told. But I did find those masks of his to be very compelling. They have haunted me for the last few decades of my life and I've been unable to escape their allure. I began with just simple sketches, charcoal on paper, obsessively filling book after book with these disjointed figures. That began in earnest over two decades ago. For most of my life I had been experimenting with other types of art, but not really finding a focus. This new style of art would transform me and take over me, leaving me unable to create anything else. After completing several books of these sketches, I picked up a brush and began attempting to render my vision onto much larger surfaces, including large walls and canvases. As the surfaces got bigger, my work began to look more and more like ancient cave paintings with a contemporary flavor and verve. My influences have broadened over the years as I have been exposed to Artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Willem De Kooning. In fact, after seeing Basquiat for the first time at The Broad Museum in 2017, I relaized that his work was very rough and even had pieces of gum stuck to it and shoe prints from where he must have stepped on it while painting. Seeing this loosened up my work, liberated me and relieved me from a lot of my worry. I didn't need to be perfect. I could be messier, more unbound. I began using more paint, more layering.
Some of my works are well defined 'figures' and others are a deconstruction of those figures, like Keith Haring's work in a blender...arms, eyes, hands, torso, mouths, all blending together in an attempt to redefine what it means to be human. But whether or not they are complete figures or disassemble and scattered about, they all are a reflection of my obsession with our collective spirit and our passion and desire to be free. These deconstructed pieces are named with a series of X's and Y's, which reflect the X&Y chromosomes. Some of the 'figures' have two-heads, maybe multiple limbs, which to me reflects the duality of our nature; the desire to fit into society, but also our inner lust to break free from our constraints and return to a simpler state of being, where we dance freely with our souls attune with our most basic needs and desires.
I always begin my paintings with the eyes. I remember the Renaissance paintings at the DIA and the way the eyes seemed to follow me from one side of the room to the next. They were so haunting and alive. I always seek to capture that essence of life in my work. If my paintings don't feel alive, then I know they aren't finished. I want them to be imposing, magical, child-like and whimsical beings. They've been called "brutish", "edgy", "aggressive", "primitive" and "ingenuous". I accept all of those characterizations. If I say that I know without a doubt that I know completely all of the reasons why I paint the way I do, then I think that my art will come to an end. My art is an exploration of my soul and consciousness that has just begun. I hope that you feel it, question it and enjoy it.
Johnny Otto is self-taught contemporary artist based in Los Angeles. He was born in Bay Village, Ohio in 1966, the grandson of Czech and German immigrants. Otto is also an award-winning Filmmaker, Social Activist & the Founder of Ottophobia. His work is greatly influenced by the Neo-Expressionistic (The Wild Ones) artists of the 70's and 80's and by the Masks created by the Fang People. His work has been compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Condo, Picasso, Keith Haring, and many other influential artists of the last century.
In 1971 his father moved the family to Canada, presumably because of the Vietnam War. His father was a Doctor who dedicated his life to helping the less-fortunate in the inner city of Detroit. This greatly influenced Johnny and since then he has pledged to help those in need. He began his art career in his home town of Windsor, Ontario in 1983. He was also a Radio DJ at the influential college station CJAM-FM from 1987-1990. In the Summer of 1990, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his filmmaking and artistic dreams. In 1991 he created his first and only still life, a painting of flowers in a vase, reminiscent of Van Gogh's 'Flowers in a Blue Vase'. When his father, who had been a major influence in his art, died in 1991, he instructed his mother to place in his father’s coffin.
In the early 90's he helped form the ART SQUAT collective and is actively keeping its spirit alive in the Hollywood area. He is also a member of both the ACLU and the Los Angeles Art Syndicate. He participated in the The Angel Art benefit, an art and photography auction that was hosted by Herb Ritts, Richard Meier, Robert Graham and David Hockney. The event, emceed by Lily Tomlin, commemorated artists who have died from AIDS. He has been featured in MovieMaker Magazine and his films have debuted at The Palm Springs Film Festival and The La Jolla International Fashion Film Festivals. He also started his own festival called SLIMDUNCE, in 2009, to showcase 7 films that he made in a 7 week period.
Having trouble getting into conventional galleries, Johnny Otto decided to take matters into his own hands and created a series of unconventional solo shows including ‘Art In The Alley’, which allowed motorists to drive down an alley in Hollywood that was filled with his art. Later that year he and his friends created Art Squat as they commandeered an abandoned building across from Fairfax High School and turned it into an art space that lasted for two years before being discovered and shut down.
Eventually Johnny Otto made his way into some of Hollywood’s more experimental galleries including 01, Headquarters, The Farhad Novia & Simon Miller Space, Ministry, Jeff Hamilton's Street Art Fair and many others. He is currently working on his new series of 'Savage' paintings, highly influenced by African and Tribal art. In June 2017, he launched his #FINDART campaign and has promised to hide pieces of his art around the Los Angeles area and then leave clues on his soclai media platforms so that his fans can find the art and keep it for themselves.
In addition to paintng, Otto has dabbled in experimental art. His calling card, MOUSE TRAPS painted red, have become a collector's item in the Hollywood area. He is also planning a series of experimental art shows for the Los Angeles area which will focus on the deconstruction of celebrity and pop art.
When I couldn't afford to paint on canvases, I'd go to the Guitar Center or Sam Ash parking lot and find their discarded cardboard boxes, take them home and paint on them. I did that for several years, until I found a company that made really inexpensive canvases and I was able to paint on canvas again.
"Earthly Delights" 2017 acrylic on canvas 48"x60"