Justine Otto | SLOW LEARNER

The inconspicuous thematic and stylistic shifts which have marked Justine Otto’s artistic practice over the years have been regularly commended. They were prompted by the compelling impetus of freedom: the freedom to choose subjects that resonate with a point in time, as well as the freedom to utilize paint and modify her technical approach to fit the atmosphere of a given moment. From working with female figures at the beginning, through a transition to masculine archetypes (heroes, leaders, or cowboys), to the most recent musician paintings, the Polish-born, German-based artist has harnessed the increasingly intense and motivating sensation of experiencing an artistic deliverance. And although they stemmed from different sources of inspiration and were energized by disparate intentions, each chapter of her ever-evolving practice pointed towards the next one, developing an oeuvre that, in a way, imitates the dynamics of life. As a woman, working with female subjects felt like a natural initial step, but with time her interest moved towards the portrayal and reconstruction of male soldier and officer figures. Approaching these authoritarian archetypes in a more playful way, Otto was determined to take apart their almost mythical appearance, but only to reassemble them in an almost mischievous, highly painterly manner. Utilizing extraordinary fluorescent pigments beyond the standard oil palette and employing the viscosity of paint to depict volumes, forms, and their interaction with perspective and light, Otto reduced the faces of these supposedly imposing sitters to a rummage of strokes, and their outfits to mere contours. And while working with such particular imagery, her interest in more theatrical, dynamic scenes introduced the modern-day anti-hero that is the Marlboro Man, or a cowboy. As she thought about the likes of Roy Rogers and his Trigger, Otto’s characters eventually transmuted towards the country music persona. Often portrayed in a larger, open setting, the lasso-spinning, horse-riding model followed the quietness of the world hit by the global pandemic and took a moment to rest in the company of a musical instrument. The resulting, current body of work, the musician paintings, finally made the connection with the artist’s two biggest passions — music and painting — advancing New Traditionalists to a major milestone. From sharing her personal life with a musician, to allowing the atmosphere of favorite tunes to seep into her pictures, to borrowing song or record titles when describing her work (the title of the exhibition comes from a 1981 studio album by Devo), music plays a significant role in Otto’s life. Reflecting on herself in moments of total detachment from the world around her, wielding her tools of the trade, semi-aware of decisions and moves, the artist strongly identifies with her tuneful muses. Further, life in the countryside influences the abstraction of the existing organic forms and the construction of a backdrop permeated with a sense of disconnection and absolute nonconfinement. In that setting, the subjects are depicted in moments of harmonious unity, with almost perceptible tunes emanating from their instruments. Flutes, harps, violins, guitars, or lutes are played both vigorously, with images capturing virtuosic hands in different positions at once, and in a leisurely way, with performers peacefully lounging alongside each other and their gear. As they blend in with their surroundings, with matching shapes composing both their bodies and the elements of the scenery, the emotional and pictorial harmony creates a profound ambiance in which freedom becomes the main subject of the story. The positively energized atmosphere of these images is to some extent underlined by an absolute absence of black pigment. Allowing for traces of light to exist in literally every moment of the work, Otto emphasizes her expressive

mark-making and overall driven approach to her process. Copying the dynamics of life, she is modifying the existing organic environment in relationship with the current and/ or desired state, layering gestures on top of each other, and removing the ones that feel redundant. Such crude technique informs the worn-out shades of certain passages which in combination with strong pigments create a striking, electrifying vibe. At the same time, it reveals the artist’s deep appreciation for paint as a material and painting as a medium, putting the creative process ahead of the content. Still concerned about the balance between the image and the technique used to depict it, the perfect unity of what is painted and how it is painted grows into an irresistible yet dubiously obtainable holy grail. Allowing painting to become a medium that captures both the moments of quiet, careful nighttime sessions, and the urgency and zest of spirited creative outbursts, the images ultimately teeter between these two ends of the emotional spectrum. Capturing that energy inside the paint itself, they become time capsules in which all relationships with the outside world are halted and only the flow of the process matters. Disconnected from conscious decisions, Otto’s actions are driven by instinct, the gut, allowing for certain segments to move far away from the rules of tradition or reality. Alternating the plausible and experienced with an accent on the action itself, in the past four years, the musicians have become a metaphor for the artist herself as well as her admiration for the incomparable feeling of unconditional freedom.

Saša Bogojev