CAN PAINTERS HAVE a social practice? Even when they get into the weeds of formalism? The Los Angeles–based artist Laura Owens makes a convincing argument that both answers are yes—but it’s complicated.
For Owens’s big, blooming survey at the Whitney Museum, curator Scott Rothkopf went all-out to support her desire to have images communicate with each other, with works by fellow artists, and with the building’s architecture; a custom configuration of the fifth floor includes temporary galleries proportioned to re-create previous installations.
The largest works, from the last few years, are dazzling. Super-smart, clean and bright, and a little chilly, they bounce viewers around like a trampoline, drawing you in close, pushing you away, and encouraging you to see connections among recurring motifs and self-quotations. Often, they sport layered, fragmented grids, the heavier—in paint application and color—generally on top. The weightiest strokes of all, great galumphing Ab-Ex-style swooshes of thickly applied paint, are (in two ways, both good) like frosting on the cake; most swooshes are further emphasized with sharply illusionistic painted shadows, some eyeballed, others created digitally, as is much of Owens’s imagery. Acrylic, oil, and vinyl paint as well as charcoal and solvent transfers come into play, along with fabric, yarn, vinyl stickers, and wood. Spontaneity is calculated with care; rather than working in the moment, Owens relies on preliminary sketches and tests (and assistants).
In a quintet of cherry-red paintings from 2012, riven by various fractured grids and furious blue, black, and green scrawls, the materials include resin and pumice. Little brown clumps are scattered like astral dust across surfaces composed in part of screenprinted classified ads lifted from a ’60s underground Berkeley newspaper. Although not identified as such, these five paintings—untitled, like all of Owens’s works—are from an exhibition called “Pavement Karaoke.” In the original hanging, at Sadie Coles HQ, in London, the show’s title could be read across the full group’s seven canvases, even though parts of letters fell between the cracks. With the suite now split up by sales, the encrypted message is further obscured. We are invited to wonder, without prejudice: is there any there there?
ASKED RECENTLY to comment on Helen Frankenthaler, Owens hailed the “almost infinite” background space that the Color Field painter created.1 Owens does the same. There’s a lot in front of her work’s surfaces, and even more behind them, but the picture plane, storied locus of high-Modernist abstraction, tends to disappear. Sometimes, the effect is expressed as a joke. One crisply executed 2014 canvas is intruded upon, at the bottom, by a skanky little gray mouse, peering into a deep black mouse hole.
If Jonathan Lasker’s graphic grids-plus-sculptural-squiggles seem one point of reference for Owens, Roy Lichtenstein’s freestanding brushstrokes are another. Abstract Expressionism first met Pop in the person of Jasper Johns, whose alphabets surely lurk behind Owens’s letter-based paintings of 2012. (Hung high in a narrow, unlit corridor, these thirty-three small square canvases are first visible over the back wall of the gallery in which the “Pavement Karaoke” paintings are installed.) Pop notes are also clear in a recent painting flaunting valentine-red hearts, and in two others featuring a children’s book character whose pipe-shaped schnoz sends forth a fountain of lemonade. A much-reproduced painting acquired by the Whitney from its 2014 Biennial features a Hallmark-card-like cartoon of a little boy accompanied by a dog, and by the hand-lettered bit of advice when you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on. Tough love, and Owens means it. If her paintings are sometimes sweet, they are never ingratiating—but neither are they as cynical as, say, Richard Prince’s (to cite another artist who favors cartoons). The surface of this painting is a nested series of highly illusionistic crevasses and canyons, including one that splits the boy’s wide grin even further. The trellis fragments scattered across the canvas, though, are made of wood. Extending past the painting’s side on the left, they draw our attention to the fact that the turquoise ground stops short of the canvas’s edges and has a shadow to suggest it’s a painting upon a painting—except at the upper right, where it gives itself away with a slightly ragged, painterly edge.
A couple of recent paintings feature wheels, a single wheel in one, lots in another, alluding to the action-painting proposition that formalism can be downright athletic while also nodding to the drily conceptual pleasures of Duchamp. Owens takes both ideas a bit further in a series of ninety-two small square canvases, a few with moving parts that might mark time, run high along the walls of several galleries. Writes Owens, the clock idea “opens up many linguistic twins. For example the hands of a clock, hand of the artist, face of a clock/portraiture.” Plus, by providing literal “temporal experiences,” these paintings reiterate the “temporal experience of looking at a painting, seeing it from the side, far away, up close.” Found in the marketplaces of both mass production and craft, a clock (like any other everyday thing) “allows a painting to expand its own linguistic edges and points to our limited definitions of what a painting can be.”2 Owens has similar thoughts about books, as is reflected in this exhibition’s catalogue, a lavish 664-page scrapbook of layered images (few of them legible reproductions of her work), short essays by assorted writers (mostly reprinted), personal statements and letters (including some heated exchanges with various gallerists), and miscellaneous documents, the whole amounting to a compound of social history and biography. Each book, in a run of 8,500, has a unique cover; customized upholstered benches throughout the exhibition have rectangular impressions that accommodate sample copies. “A book can stand in for a work of art, and be just a book at the same time,” Owens says.3 If this catalogue, like Owens’s many previous publications, belongs in the venerable tradition of books that constitute artworks, it also participates in a newer trend toward exhibition publications that are as physically imposing as they are light on scholarship. As was, for instance, the highly designed book that accompanied Kai Althoff’s 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which featured tipped-in and interleaved plates on several kinds of paper stock, as well as surprisingly pointed exchanges between artist and curator), there is very little in the way of reasoned assessment of the work.
On the positive side, Owens’s paintings are enlivened by her interest in the inherently serial nature of books, where meaning accrues page by page, and in the way type can give way to abstract graphic patterning. “What do you think about when you read the words in the painting?” she asks. “How are they different from the didactics on the wall telling you my name, the date, and the lender? Where is the painting?”4 It’s a good query for a work from 2015 in which five floor-mounted panels (installed almost alone on the eighth floor) are staggered such that each partly obscures the one behind it. From a single vantage point, you’ll discover a text running continuously from one to the next. It reads: there was a cat and an alien. they went to antartica. then they teleported to the center of the earth. there they got 11,0000000 bombs and blew them up and turned earth. (The punch line, into a pizza crust, appears in an unobtrusive little still life hung on the far wall.)
Clearly sprung from the mind of a child (specifically, Owens’s son, Henry, now twelve; she also has a nine-year-old daughter, Nova), this apocalyptic little tale is confidently lettered on an enlarged version of the dotted- and solid-lined paper schoolkids use to learn penmanship. But stand before an individual panel and the words complete differently—cat becomes category, “antartica” is transformed to antagonizing—yielding a more adult and intransigent kind of absurdism. (A view of another set of images on the panels’ backs, a composite still life of sorts, is also adapted from a drawing by Henry, on loose-leaf paper, of various tasty things, all labeled, including “cherries,” “licorice,” and “cinnamon bun.”) Along with a particularly vivid challenge to painting’s physical coherence, there are a number of ideas in play here. One is that meaning falls apart if you get too close. Another, that kids take up an incredible amount of space. A third might be that reproductions take all the fun out of seeing art.
Words also have a place in three paintings that are extracts from a 2016 installation at CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco for which Owens created black-and-white wallpaper featuring a host of digitally randomized and fragmented letters and numbers. Amid drifts of tiny black squares compressed from print, and also legible sheets of text (horoscopes, news blasts), there were eight telephone numbers to which viewers were invited to text questions. At the Whitney, a single telephone number, listed on a wall label, delivers recorded answers to texted queries, as before, prompted by keywords in the question; responses are drawn from interviews Owens has given, as well as sound clips, snippets of commercials, and other sources. In San Francisco, one question yielded a bonus: the show was called “Ten Paintings,” and although none were on hand in the traditional sense, if you texted “where are the paintings?,” the answer “here” bounced from one speaker to the next, all around the room.5 My own questions at the Whitney produced noise, rap music, and (in reply to “why horoscopes?”) a repeated request for my star sign. I replied, and was greeted with a short discourse in a language I couldn’t make out, and a sharply heightened little blast of the kind of paranoia (the walls have ears!) that has become all too familiar.
IN A 2003 INTERVIEW, novelist Rachel Kushner asked Owens why she chose to be a painter. “Early ideas and impressions about community,” she answered, “and the type of community I wanted to be in, and the type of thinking I wanted to do.”6 Nearly a decade ago, David Joselit proposed a way of talking about painting as a social, relational activity. He began by quoting Martin Kippenberger, who asserted in 1990, “simply to hang a painting on the wall and say that it’s art is dreadful. The whole network is important! . . . When you say art, then everything possible belongs to it.”7 Bringing Jutta Koether, Wade Guyton, R.H. Quaytman, and Stephen Prina into the discussion, Joselit introduced “transitivity” as a term for work that “moves out from painting-as-cultural artifact to the social networks surrounding it.”8 Thomas Crow had said something similar, if bleaker, more than ten years earlier, writing that the art market had become “to a great extent, an economy of services more than of goods. A primary value that the well-placed client receives . . . is participation, insider status and recognition.”9 These are admittedly academic perspectives, and are focused as much on hierarchies of power—“institutional critique”—as on the horizontal “social” networks they also name. While Owens is hardly blind to questions of power within the art world, the transitivity her work can be said to represent tends toward the lateral, convivial kind. A 1997 exhibition titled “Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens and Frances Stark,” at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, was billed as “an investigation into the nature of discourse and dialog among friends.”10 Stark contributed a drawing, Lockhart a photograph, and Owens a painting; each work was 48 inches square. A box of photocopied studio notes, postcards, personal photographs, mixtapes of favorite music, and video clips was produced during the show’s run in an edition of forty-eight and exhibited at its conclusion. More than any single approach to art-making, it was the three artists’ shared interests, many of them extracurricular, that the exhibition highlighted—and, simply and irreducibly, their friendship.
“Public Offerings,” an exhibition curated by Paul Schimmel at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2001, addressed the relational dimension of this generation of LA artists even more directly. As Lane Relyea wrote in the show’s catalogue, for these artists, including Owens, “the real isn’t manifested in any single, inscrutable material object. . . . Rather it inheres in strings of relationships, in the tenuous and intimate connections that make up an artist’s scene or the ecology of his or her practice, in the interlocking and occasional slippage of components within those systems, and in their dense circulation of information (of objects, people, money, press camaraderie, gossip).”11 The hum of these voices is background music in all of Owens’s work.
BORN IN 1970 in Euclid, Ohio, Owens spent her undergraduate years at the Rhode Island School of Design, but describes her education there as stifling; the whole painting program, she says, was against thinking and reading. Countering some dearly held assumptions about where such activities are valued, she headed to Los Angeles for graduate school, completing an MFA at California Institute of the Arts in 1994. There, too, she was a contrarian, this time resisting the reign of Continental theory (Baudrillard, Deleuze). Owens remembers the Conceptualist Michael Asher, who was on the faculty, responding to a painting made by fellow student Monique Prieto with the observation, “I see you’ve taken this cloth and wrapped it over this wooden structure.” Prieto and Owens became friends; both dropped Asher’s class. Owens continued producing sculpture and installation work; Prieto says her friend, like others in the school, was “painting secretly.”12
Owens’s early paintings tended toward whimsy. Among the best known is a 1997 seascape in which a few glossy stripes of deep blue at the bottom indicate a placid ocean, and a couple of shorthand, V-shaped birds wing their way across a baby-blue sky, on which they cast—believably, so still and perfect is the scene—airbrushed shadows. In the Kushner interview, Owens responded to the question, “Where do the bad feelings go?” by saying, “There’s a space of personal freedom for me where my art-making happens. . . . It’s a space that has its own properties, and they don’t have to do with happy or sad or any of that. I would never say to myself, ‘Okay, let me go into this space of freedom in order to show you about the pain I have.’ . . . I’m not in the space of freedom if I’m in pain.” And further, “I actually just don’t feel that my negative or desperate or hopeless ideas are that interesting.” Her point is well taken. It is only decent—and in contemporary culture, generous and bold—to acknowledge privilege and resist inflating ordinary grievances.
In several paintings from the mid-’90s, canvases regard each other coyly, as when an anomalously dark still life shows up in a more characteristically bright rendering of an interior, where the still life is one of two obliquely positioned paintings-within-the-painting. Among the earliest works at the Whitney is one picturing a sharply receding interior with dozens of tiny paintings crammed into the visible strip of a far wall, some of them executed by friends of Owens. (Among the embedded paintings is Owens’s own spumoni-colored mini abstraction. A bigger but otherwise identical version of this confectionary image hangs alongside.)
Collaboration continued. One gallery is given over to an installation created in 1998 with Jorge Pardo, his tasteful suite of high-modern, earth-tone and blond wood furniture paired with her quartet of color-matched paintings of bees and beehives. Mirrors multiply the reflections. Not in this show is a work co-authored with Scott Reeder in 1999, a painted “diptych” of a giant tree whose leafy top half was installed in a ground-floor space and its bottom, of roots and burrowing animals, in a gallery below. At the opening video monitors offered live feeds of each space to the other, but there was also some prerecorded footage, just to mess with attendees trying to decide where the action was.13
A two-panel painting from 1999, composed of numbers of varying sizes written in thin squiggles of paint, some of them backward, introduces a shift to a more conceptual kind of abstraction, and also affirms the influence of Sigmar Polke, evident in much of Owens’s work. Polke’s 1967 painting Solutions V, which consists of a list of alternative math facts (2+3=6, 4=4=5, etc.), reminds us how easy it is to create fiction with numbers. The two panels of Owens’s painting are hung face-to-face across a short hallway, mirroring each other—figures that are backward in one face forward in the other—and leaving us in a looking-glass world of shifty integers.
In 2000 Owens made her first paintings of living beings (apart from those notional seagulls). Her subjects included a couple in bed, a tender, skillful image after a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and then, soon, a host of animals: pretty ponies, beguiling monkeys, and a lascivious green-eyed cheetah. Some are awkward (the cheetah), some precise but naïve. In a lovely painting from 2002, a range of animals, from butterflies and birds to a bear, lie more or less hidden in plain sight, as they tend to do in nature. One intimate gallery is packed with such work, varied in scale and degree of sophistication. There is a large, moony seascape, dark and glittering with little hot-pink stars; also, several amorous couples, and a battle scene that seems to have been lifted from the Bayeux Tapestry. At the end of the decade, Owens turned to the hybridized abstraction of her current work, in which many of the impulses she’d followed before—toward naive figuration and wry conceptualism, and toward meaning that accrues across objects—come together.
IN 2012 OWENS signed a lease for 356 South Mission Road, in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. An enormous building, it once warehoused Liberace’s pianos. She has used it to stage performances, screen films, and host artists’ residencies, youth workshops, and exhibitions. It also houses an outpost of Wendy Yao’s store, Ooga Booga, which sells books, clothes, and multiples, and stages events. Yao and gallery owner Gavin Brown, who represents Owens, are partners in maintaining the space (which remains a rental). Owens’s studio is next door. For an artist who thrives on setting her own boundaries, and who likes white-knuckling deadlines and otherwise stressing out dealers and curators, the arrangement would seem to offer benefits all around.
Clearly, 356 South Mission is not a novel proposition. From the artists who ran coop galleries of the 1950s to Michelle Grabner curating her Suburban exhibition space near Chicago and beyond, painters, sculptors, and performers have served as impresarios and cheerleaders for their friends. In the concluding essay to a book that begins with an article on the artist collective Tiny Creatures, which thrived briefly a decade ago in LA, Chris Kraus writes, “There’s no such thing as a failed utopian community,” since “collectivity arranges itself around a desire,” essentially to become something other.14
However modest, this utopianism fails to convince some of Owens’s neighbors in Boyle Heights, who have protested the gentrification they say the Mission Road project helped instigate. (Kraus, an LA landlord herself, has drawn opposition too.) Resistance followed Owens to New York, where there were protesters against gentrification on hand the night of her opening. Owens responded with a written statement defending her commitment to providing a social good for the community. As the Whitney’s staff knows well, museums have recently been sites of political action more often than at any time since the late 1960s and early ’70s.15 This is mostly good. But as is often the case these days, the artists and the activists seem to be talking past each other.16
That’s particularly so, perhaps, when the art at issue seems to turn its back on the political world. What critics offer often in defense of abstract painting amounts to proclaiming its unique sincerity—the argument is that good painting is, perhaps singularly, unironic in its quest for transcendent perceptual experience. In a talk about painting’s prospects this fall, curator and writer Glenn Adamson wondered if there wasn’t a position between inhabiting an idiom unselfconsciously and appropriating it. He proposed ownership,17 which is nicely positive, if a little static. I think what motivates a painter as agile as Owens is keeping the target moving. Though some forms of abstraction solicit a long, meditative gaze, we all know that in social situations, staring is rude. In Owens’s paintings, the surface won’t bear it. Her work’s value can’t be located in any stable place—in medium or support, form or concept, words or images, figuration or abstraction. It’s not handmade or fabricated or digital. It’s emergent, as some scientists say about consciousness, and as friends might say about friendship.