Owens paintings are challenging and difficult. They are each quite particular, not conforming to any notion of serial production or thematic development. They insist on being looked at closely and over time. They demand an attentive gaze, a careful accounting of parts. They sometimes seem smart-alecky, but are also very earnest. They resist analysis.
-- Thomas Lawson
in Laura Owens (MOCA)
Her work is both painting and about painting. . . . It's like in a Moliere play, when an actor talks in character and then stands to the side and comments on the play. I believe she's the most important painter to emerge in Southern California in the '90s.
-- Paul Schimmel
interviewed by Dodie Kazanjian in Vogue, April 2002
Laura Owens, one of the higher profile young artists in Los Angeles, is having her first monographic survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), Mar. 16-June 22, 2003. This show comes only nine years after the 33-year-old artist, who graduated with a master's degree in painting from Cal Arts, first showed in L.A. in the 1994 LACE Annuale curated by Dave Hickey.
The current exhibition features approximately 40 paintings and works on paper, with an accompanying 88-page catalogue, and is the most substantial that MOCA has undertaken for an artist who is still in her first decade of production. Many of the works in the show are borrowed from national and international collections, and the exhibition is booked for a lengthy tour: after its appearance in Los Angeles, it subsequently travels to the Aspen Art Museum (Aug. 2-Sept. 28, 2003), the Milwaukee Art Museum (Oct. 18, 2003-Jan. 18, 2004) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (March 4-May 9, 2004).
To say that Laura Owens is an artist who elicits contrasting assessments is an understatement. To her supporters, such as Thomas Lawson, her paintings are "unerringly on-target in their odd mixture of knowing charm and destabilizing cruelty." Owens' fans also include the painter David Hockney, who helped finance the MOCA exhbition, and of course MOCA curator Paul Schimmel, who has shown Owens' work once before, recreating her 1995 debut appearance at Rosamund Felsen Gallery as part of his "Public Offerings" exhibition of 2001.
Owens's detractors, by contrast, dismiss her as being both too hip and too coy by half. She is spread too thin, they say, thanks to the extreme demands put on her production by collectors clamoring for her work -- the waiting list for her paintings reaches several years into the future -- and a punishing international exhibition schedule. What her admirers in her art see as innate charm and acute intelligence, her critics view as cloying sweetness and, particularly to many hard-line conceptualists, a lack of depth.
In any case, Owens is ambitious, and her work reveals a sophisticated awareness of the forces at play in the contemporary art world. Her oeuvre is a pastiche of styles informed by current and past critical discourse, and is executed with an attitude of nonchalance, and with an obvious joy taken in paint and painting. She recently described her approach:
I feel that my paintings are very specifically American and have a lot to do with where I come from. I suppose it's a straightforward, Midwestern, no-bones-about-it sensibility and a certain sense of humor. I've always thought that, instead of making the day fit into your painting, you should make the painting fit into your day. A painting should fit into your life. I think that I picked up that idea from Mary Heilmann and her way of working. I met her when she was a visiting artist at Cal Arts, and she had a profound impact on me. Although she's extremely serious about what she's doing, she has a very casual approach to making a painting.
-- Laura Owens, Artforum, Summer 1999
Owens is part of a group of second-generation Los Angeles postmodern artists, a group that also includes Monique Prieto, Ingrid Calame and Kevin Appel, that is credited with reviving the practice of painting in L.A. in the 1990s. This development has its roots in MOCA's breakthrough 1989 exhibition, "A Forest of Signs" (many of the artists who exhibited in that show were their teachers at local art schools). The younger artists happily adopted the mixed references to art history, theory and popular culture, but also embraced the neglected practice of painting with a new excitement.
"A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation". . . looks at the redefinition of art making in America in the 1980s. . . . The title of the exhibition refers to "forest" of signs and symbols that define contemporary culture: the flow of images from films, billboards, bus benches, magazines, television and art itself that are with us daily. These images come to represent a new reality in their own right -- a reality that we seek to enter and imitate in our own lives."
-- Richard Koshalek
in A Forest of Signs (MOCA)
From the beginning Owens would sway back and forth across styles and subject manner. Her earlier paintings often engaged styles that were held in low esteem, such as Color Field and New Image painting. In an untitled abstract work from 1995 -- all of Owens' paintings are untitled, a logistical nightmare for us critics -- she combines a diagonal stripe pattern that clearly derives from Kenneth Noland along with dabs of paint applied with witty Abstract Expressionist-like strokes.
Similarly, a 1998 abstraction in which a white field is dotted with small circles evokes the trademark early style of Larry Poons. Still other paintings reference signature motifs by Arshile Gorky, John Baldessari, Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. In a 1998 painting, a field of Gorky-like violet and lavender shapes is thrown into neo-conceptualist doubt by a large looping signature applied upside-down on the top left side of the canvas.
In a 1999 two-panel work, the left-hand side is covered with numbers, while the right-hand canvas is a mirror image of the first, with the numbers reversed. A 1997 painting, which MOCA used as its catalogue cover, is one of several diagrammatic works from 1995-97 that depict the interior spaces of galleries and museums. These paintings include an outline of the architecture, images of other artworks on the wall (paintings within the painting) and additional props, such as an easel standing in the gallery.
Owens' canvases are large in scale; spare in composition and extremely pale in palette, with the paint applied with a certain edgy awkwardness. The refusal to title her works served as a citation of modernist abstraction in general and Minimalists like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin in particular. Despite the wide variety of her images, no individual work is given heightened gravitas within her production. The effect is lighthearted but confrontational.
This refreshing body of work caused a sensation when it was first shown at Felsen in 1995, and rightfully cemented Owens' immediate status as an artist to watch. By 1997, she had begun a dizzying array of high-profile exhibitions at prestigious galleries, including Acme in Los Angeles, Gavin Brown Enterprises in New York and Sadie Cowles in London. She began to incorporate a broader array of references into her work, including images suggestive of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting and garden design. One work from this exceptional series, which dates to 2000, shows a beautiful view of a mountain scene at sunset, and is installed at the entrance to MOCA exhibition.
Owens has also incorporated references to the "women's crafts" of embroidery and needlepoint, squeezing the paint directly from the tube to mimic the effect of needle and thread. Disregarded American folk artists, like Grandma Moses, also came into play in her work.
The exhibition ends with a large selection of more recent paintings of animals in the forest, scenes that can be described as a literal potpourri of signs (some actually include road signs in the paintings). These Hallmark Card-like renditions show squirrels, rabbits, turtles, owls, butterflies or bears in landscapes that are one part Japanese painting and another part Disney cartoon, with a few unexpected additional motifs, like decks of cards or red sneakers. In these works, Owens is at her most skilled, exuberant and witty.
IRIT KRYGIER is a Los Angeles writer and art advisor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.