In November 2017, the Whitney Museum of American Art will open the most comprehensive survey to-date of the work of Los Angeles–based painter Laura Owens (b. 1970), one of the foremost artists of her generation. Organized by Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s Deputy Director for Programs and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator, in close collaboration with the artist, this exhibition will be the first mid-career survey in the Whitney’s new downtown home. It will run from mid-November 2017 through early February 2018. Major support is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation.
For more than twenty years, Laura Owens has pioneered an innovative—and at times controversial—approach to painting that challenges traditional assumptions about the nature of figuration and abstraction, the relationships among avant-garde art, craft, and pop culture, and the interplay between painting and contemporary technologies. Owens emerged on the Los Angeles art scene shortly after completing her studies at the California Institute of the Arts in 1994, at a time when painting was viewed with suspicion by the academic establishment and many of her peers favored more conceptual approaches to art-making. Owens bucked this prevailing trend with a series of large-scale canvases marked by their grand ambition on the one hand, and their incorporation of humbler, low-key marks and subjects on the other, merging abstraction with goofy personal allusions, as well as materials that seemed more the province of craft stores than the fine arts. References to cartooning, doodling, and a high-pitch, sometimes pastel palette served as further irritants to ingrained painterly pieties.
Over the ensuing decade Owens established herself as a key voice pushing painting towards a new conception of site-specificity grounded in the social, poetic, and architectural conditions of a particular place. Early on, she demonstrated a keen interest in how paintings function in a given room and used trompe-l’oeil techniques to extend the plane of a wall or floor directly into the illusionistic space of her pictures. These canvases often featured paintings within paintings and sometimes paintings within those, creating an effect of Russian nesting dolls that confused the boundaries of actual and pictorial space, as well as reality and representation. Owens’s approach offered a highly original conception of how a portable painting might allude to its initial setting (and its siblings in a series) while nevertheless remaining distinct from it, unlike the in situ wall paintings of previous generations. These works demonstrate a self-conscious and reflexive relationship to the physical world they occupy, while opening, almost paradoxically, onto a lush space of reverie, conjecture, and play.
Owens’s interest in American folk art, historical tapestries, and other vernacular forms led her to fill her canvases with imagery and materials, such as felt appliqué and needlework, that were anathema to more serious discourses on painting and to some of her critical commentators. Yet this non-hierarchical and omnivorous approach to source material and technique allowed her to push painting forward and to engage broader social issues in surprising ways. In the aftermath of the United States’s call to war following the events of 9/11, Owens turned to almost childlike depictions of nineteenth-century American soldiers and medieval images of knights to address our increasingly bellicose national conversation. Her longstanding preoccupation with supposedly “feminine” colors and motifs from charming animals to infantile gestures, as well as her allusions to romantic love and motherhood (including the incorporation within her work of her own children’s drawings and stories) has led to a disruptive rethinking of feminism in art.
Over the past five years, Owens has charted a dramatic transformation in her work, marshaling all of her previous interests and talents within large-scale paintings that make virtuosic use of silkscreen, computer manipulation, digital printing, and material exploration. Wild blown-up brushstrokes push off finely printed appropriations from newspapers and other media sources; actual wheels or mechanical devices like clock hands spin across a painting’s surface; images shuttle between the physical and virtual worlds to arrive back on canvas magically transfigured by their journey. In a 2015 Berlin exhibition, Owens precisely positioned a group of five, large, freestanding paintings in a staggered row so that from a specific vantage the writing on their surfaces resolved into a unified image in the eye. The following year she created an installation at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco where paintings were embedded within walls covered in custom-printed wallpaper. Visitors were encouraged to interact with the installation by sending text messages to various numbers that triggered elliptical spoken replies broadcast by hidden speakers. Such bold experimentation with painting, sculpture, reference, and process have made Owens an important exemplar for younger generations of artists, many of whom cite her work as a key touchstone. Furthermore, she is a co-founder and programmer of 356 S. Mission Rd., a collaborative art gallery, bookstore, and event space that hosts regular exhibitions, readings, and screenings and has become a crucial gathering place and beacon for the Los Angeles art community and beyond. Continue reading