The assumption that painting, with its direct link to the artist’s hand, offers unparalleled access to subjectivity has always been taken by Laura Owens as a cue for irony. She adopts pictorial idioms—fantasy landscape, decorative abstraction, whimsical animal and plant vignettes—that are associated with naive self-expression. But her seemingly guileless imagery consists of painstakingly imitated signs, their naivety belied by their execution. A cluster of oil stains augmented with touches to make them resemble a fluffy bear, for example, will appear to illustrate the process that has created the image rather than the bear the process serves to illustrate. Owens is a disillusioned structuralist masquerading as a naive illusionist.
Recently, however, her attention has shifted from the detritus of illustrative, decorative and vernacular art to the traces of her own process. But given that those traces have always been replicas of spontaneity, they are posited as signs not of her subjectivity but of her medium: the language of painting. Her gesture is designated as generic, as anyone’s other than her own, under the scrutiny of an increasing reliance on printing techniques, which enable her to assume an objective remove from her manual act like that which a camera has to what it shoots. The printed fragments of text that straddle the canvases that constitute her untitled installation at Capitain Petzel might be emblematic of the conversion of Owens’s painting process into impersonal signs for her medium, and, correspondingly, of installation’s breaching of the parameters of a single composition—the window onto a single artistic vision—and coercion of it into succumbing to a broader environment.
Across five 9-foot-tall canvases, sans serif lettering is printed onto ruled lines over a blend of geometric patterning, fragments of childish illustrations, and scans of actual brushstrokes and gestural marks produced with design software. Over these various surrogates for painterly facture, the smoothly sanded gesso priming is occasionally disrupted by heavy smears of real impasto. The canvases are fixed upright to the floor in a domino-like sequence that suggests their “collapsing” into a single “image.” From a vantage point at one end of the gallery’s length, the incoherent language gels into a statement that runs across the five staggered planes.
The statement reads, “There was a cat and an alien. They went to antarctica. Then they teleported to the center of the earth. There they got 11,0000000 bombs and blew them up and turned the earth . . . ” This final sentence is completed at the back of a basement gallery in a small still-life painting. Among the represented objects in the painting is a sheet of lined paper on which Owens has calligraphed the phrase “into a pizza crust.” The cartoon apocalypse of the sentence reflects the futile grandiosity of the structure, spanning six canvases and two floors, that communicates it. The canvas backs and stretchers of the paintings upstairs have also been printed with illustrative ciphers and offer a corresponding collaging of space.
For an artist whose vocabulary has been based on received imagery, the installation is radically reflexive, both in its self-encompassing structure and its focus on Owens’s process; but it resolves itself as an outward-looking meditation on how painting projects illusion, transcending its essential materiality. In the eye of the viewer, five canvases, placed in a receding sequence, are blended into a single plane, overcoming the literalness of real space by claiming it as illusionistic space. The dissolution of painting’s accreted materiality into the simultaneity of pictorial illusion is made synonymous with the clicking of words into the sequentiality of a sentence.
Laura Owens’s paintings can make you ponder the difference between irony and ambivalence. Also, facility and haste. She seems to split the difference in both cases, finishing works of perfect sincerity before she’s got any real reason to be sure about them, indulging felicitous gestures, saving second thoughts for another picture. Sometimes, the results are wonderful. One of the most substantial works in her recent show (all untitled, 2009) is a 5-foot-square painting that shows a curly-haired child lying asleep on a beach, his deftly described mauve body vibrant with dreams. They’re pictured below him in the form of lightly Disneyfied marine life that includes a bug-eyed flounder in electric shades of hot pink and orange; dreamy, too, is the seaside scene rendered in quick strokes behind: turquoise water, white sand and breeze-swept sky, the whole hot, calm and—however innocent—lavishly volupté.
This painting shared a room with the biggest work shown, a 7½-by-14-foot nocturnal seascape sparkling with neon pink stars, its seemingly black-lit central surge rimmed with pink and purple. The heavy night sea sweeps over a wash of purplish blue; stylized, Hokusai-like waves, in opaque white, form a kind of strand at the painting’s bottom margin. If Dana Schutz’s distinctive dot-dash brushwork appears to have influenced the painting of the sleeping child (and also a small, almost frighteningly vivid still life with a virulent green leaf that looks positively man-eating), Karen Kilimnik’s fey touch hovers over the vaporous nighttime sea. In fact, there was a distinct feel of homage in nearly every painting included here; the third example in the gallery’s main room, a busy abstraction less lively than hectic, is clearly indebted to Gorky.
And so it went. Matisse, hinted at elsewhere, is openly heralded in a watercolor of flowers, one among a series of small works on paper. Hunt Slonem’s precedence could be detected in a beguiling, modestly scaled, light-as-a-feather painting of birds rendered as mid-air blurs behind the diamond-patterned grid of a wire cage. A dozen or so handmade unique books that were also on display, most containing sketches, are in some cases annotated with names of the canon’s big guns, including (understandably) Matisse and (a bit perplexingly) Cézanne.
Maybe further paintings will substantiate the tribute. Owens, who is based in Los Angeles and has been exhibiting her work for more than 15 years, seems determined to remain the precociously adroit bricoleur she was from the start, borrowing with abandon, bestowing respects unstintingly and reaping bushels of visual pleasure.
Photo: Laura Owens: Untitled, 2009, oil, gesso and graphite on linen, 60 inches square; at Gavin Brown.