Portrait Laura Owens
Known as much for her clever plunder of painting’s conventions as for her bumptious mix of high and low cultural references, Los-Angeles painter Laura Owens has by now long outpaced the early trivializations of her work as light-hearted California-girl pictures. In her recent work, Owens gives painting’s gestures her most serious overhaul to date.
The virtual sun – that illusive light source loitering off the top left corner of our computer screens – rose in 1980, with the first graphical user interfaces. That sun produced the most durable of the screen age’s design features: the drop shadow, whose sempiternal penumbra falls just below and to the right of windows and icons. The drop shadow gestures toward some space in there that obeys similar laws to the one out here, where things can be dragged and dropped, pointed at and piled up, where, in short, gesture tout court can happen. But the drop-shadow is not long for this world; the virtual sun is setting, taking with it not just an aesthetic, but an ethic. That our computer screens should defer to a physical world is a concept retreating behind, ironically enough, the touch screen. Recent flat-based design templates like Metro for Windows 8 or Google’s Material Design greet the new interface epoch with a quasi-Bauhausian rhetoric of »truth to materials«: Let a pixel be a pixel! No more false shadows in false space.
Were Laura Owens’s latest paintings imagined as an elegy to this shadow world? Probably not. But as I sift through images on my own computer screen, trying to remember what it felt like to see them – twelve magisterial paintings, three meters wide and nearly three and a half high – I am awakening slowly to a nostalgia I didn’t know was in me, much less in them. What happens to touch when we practice it on pixels, when it falls on surfaces that, as a friend recently remarked, don’t touch us back? What body can live in that world, and what gestures can it still make?
Titled »12 Paintings«, Owens’s exhibition inaugurated 356 S. Mission Rd in early 2013, after this titanic art space in a former lithograph workshop had served in the interim as the artist’s studio. Opened with the support of her dealer Gavin Brown, the space is fronted by Wendy Yao’s peerless art bookstore Ooga Booga, and has played host to screenings, book signings, Scrabble Sundays, and other such invitations to edification and to play.
The paintings were on view for 356 Mission’s first six months, and they were what I came again and again to see. They were maximal, jubilant, grandiose, full to bursting with imagery – curator Jennifer R. Gross has called Owens’s work a »swap meet of cultural reference«, suggesting not just the heterogeneity of her source material, but her avidity for assembling it all – and technical maneuvers. The canvases were silkscreened, stained, frosted like a cake. Grids lay askew over their surfaces, acting both as computer template and garden trellis.
One painting cited Matisse’s Periwinkles (Moroccan Garden) (1912) inside a trompe-l’oeil frame, only to unleash from its taut colored planes a graphic energy that scrawls willy-nilly onto the raw canvas beyond the frame’s borders. In another, the Internet’s best friend, the cat, pullulated from end to end. There were Want Ads from the Berkeley Bard, a counter cultural rag from the 60s and 70s that has made previous cameos in Owens’s oeuvre; there was a copy of a children’s rendering of a cityscape overlaid by fat blue floaters resembling diacritics. There were sparkles. Each painting was like the loudest person at the party, whose sheer vitality gives her license to most of the room’s oxygen.
The effect of them hung shoulder to shoulder was Water Lily-caliber immersive, which made their most consistent device almost deranging in its effectiveness. The drop shadow, that is, cradling a trompe l’oeil frame-within-a-frame or, most spectacularly, falling under giant gestural swipes, seemingly straight out of MacPaint’s toolbox, which themselves are composed by scoops of Flashe vinyl paint whose (real) texture cast its own (real) shadows. In an attempt to clarify this operation, Owens’s photographs of her recent paintings often include a detail taken from an oblique angle, which conveys just enough information to signal how little can be gleaned from a jpeg. You had to be (t)here, such photos say, not because this all would be clearer in person, but because you can hardly conceive how ambiguous they are from your computer screen alone.
Depth in paintings, whether figurative or abstract, constructs an illusion of inhabitability. Yet it also can signal a temporal unfolding, in short, what got laid down first and what after. You can shut out the trace of this labor, asserting the primary flatness of the painting by abolishing or by ramifying gesture. Or you can befuddle it, as Owens does, with competing notations of depth that interrupt any clear sense of how forms accumulated there. Thus
drop shadows fall at different angles, or blobby gestural marks that are themselves built out of globby brush-and-trowel gestural marks hover just beside effaced portions of the Berkeley Bard that sometimes, but not always, take the same shape. This is confusing, and not just to describe. It does far more than muddy figure-ground relationships; it obscures how something came to be made in the first place by the simple fact that the procedures for unmaking it become inconceivable. A covenant of painting is broken here: the sovereignty of the painter, formerly conveyed through the accumulation of necessary and authentic gestures, is subtly undone.
It’s partly a question of scale: Owens has never shied away from the huge canvas, used not to surmount its site but to engage it. The artist has described making sculpture and installations during art school, before concluding that she must attempt to accomplish within painting these same operations: in short, the conquest of space, the absorption of the viewer. In the case of »12 Paintings«, the dimensions of the canvases were determined by the maximum size Owens could fit through 356 Mission’s doors. »A painting should fit into your life«, she once recalled learning from Mary Heilmann – not by being content to take its place as modest decoration, but by being scaled to life’s fullest breadth.
At such a scale, any solution to a spatial conundrum can only be fleeting; you’ve no sooner divided physical from trompe-l’oeil shadow in one region before another comes to upset the order, falling too shallow or too deep. The drop-shadow itself dates back in her work to at least 1997, in a seascape where shorthand Vs of birds in flight threw improbable shadows on the sky, alongside a hovering dot (»The dot is just a dot,« wrote Benjamin Weissman in Frieze in 2003, »but it’s the craziest dot imaginable«). Grids, for their part, often reading as plaids or textile weaves, were worked out since the late 90s in dozens of studies. There is something proleptic about these initial motifs, which by now have started to read differently – as the dying forms of one interface, calling out from the extraordinarily resilient interface of another.
Put otherwise, it is like a jazz band playing chamber music, or perhaps a chamber orchestra playing a pop song: Computer interface skeuomorphs, no less doomed for oblivion than the white-gloved pointer hand and just as specific to screen-life, enlisted in the old struggle to renew the painted gesture. In a trenchant interview by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer in Artforum last year, Owens reflected on the polyvalence of gesture for her, meaning as much the
gestural marks in each painting as the gesture of making them more generally – as, indeed, the gesture of opening a space in Los Angeles, a city that Owens made home since graduating from CalArts in 1994, but in which not a single major exhibition of her work had occurred since her 2003 survey at the Los Angeles MoCA.
Gesture and mark-making, noted Owens, are conventional male prerogatives under the model of paintbrush-as-phallus; as signature traces, these concepts of gesture privilege a creative act conceived through the metaphor of the male orgasm, while the female orgasm – traceless, difficult to isolate in time – has remained relatively unexplored as a basis for painting. Mind you, I don’t think it is sufficient to take Owens’s observation as an explanation for the increasing visibility and importance of women painters in North America today. (Mark Godfrey recently took a stab at this in an article in Artforum addressing Owens’s work alongside that of Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, and Jacqueline Humphries, a text whose elisions of the generational differences both substantiated the sustained historical significance of these contributions by women and demonstrated how insufficiently they’ve so far been historicized.) Rather, Owens reaches beyond this to suggest resources within our own bodies for understanding, seeing, and making painting today.
This, at last, is what it felt like to see those paintings: It was as though my eye, used to its erratic, quaint progress across a screen, were suddenly given the resources – the freedom, but also the ungainliness and uncontrollability – of a body. In this way, Owens’s painting has turned a corner since the artist Mungo Thomson, in one of the most incisive texts on the artist’s work at an earlier stage (Parkett 65, 2002), observed their relentless pursuit of painting’s current conditions. Thomson understood her work as determined to test »how deeply the tropes of painting, and of looking at painting, have been culturally absorbed; how well-traveled the path is from original to standard to generic«. I hazard that something else is afoot now. Owens’s work today maps how the generic – including perhaps the most generic fact of painting, its testament to the body, both maker’s and viewer’s, in the inescapable materiality painting shares with them – might lead forward. In the dying aesthetic of something as banal to many of us now as our computer desktop, Owens’s paintings search out new gestures for a new body. Perhaps it’s inevitable that these gestures become apparent just as interface design looks to reject its corporeal concessions almost altogether.
Laura Owens, born 1970 in Euclid, Ohio. Lives in Los Angeles. Exhibitions: For ever Now: Painting in the New Millennium, MoMA, New York; Whitney Biennial, New York, Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting, LACMA, Los Angeles (2014); 12 Paintings, 356 S. Mission Rd., Los Angeles (solo) (2013); Pavement Karaoke / Alphabet, Sadie Coles, London (solo) (2012); Painting Between the Lines, CCA Wattis, San Francisco;
Kunstmuseum Bonn (solo); Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln (solo) (2011).
Represented by: Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York, Sadie Coles HQ, London; Galerie Gisela Capitain, Köln
Joanna Fiduccia is a critic based in Los Angeles.