Laura Owens’s mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art is a game changer. The 70 or so paintings on view provide a first-rate, in-depth consideration of an artist who’s had a loyal following since the mid-1990s. The well-paced installation smartly allows museum visitors to experience many works in re-creations of the spaces in which they initially were displayed. Even the wall labels shine—they are articulate and insightful. And the dictionary-sized catalogue, a hefty tome that’s a cross between a scrapbook and an oral history, is an instant classic.
As for Owens’s paintings, they are rambunctious, ingenious, undogmatic, sassy, and forthright. Like Alexander Calder, Owens never has lost sight of her inner child. A 47-year-old Buckeye who’s lived in Los Angeles ever since enrolling at CalArts in 1992, she belongs to a generation that doesn’t believe that the making of abstract or representational art is mutually exclusive. For her cohort, Clement Greenberg is a historical figure, not a power broker, and distinctions between high and low art aren’t as clear-cut as they once were.
You will find paintings within paintings, and work reflected in mirrors. There are madcap jungle scenes; a series of alphabet paintings with one letter per panel; couples kissing; birds and bees; seascapes and cloudless skies. Owens has been inspired by kitsch, wallpaper, children’s books illustrations, and greeting cards. Not long ago, the artist executed a group of abstractions with giant-sized squiggles that are so laden with impasto, they seem sculpted, not painted.
Owens likes sight gags, though some art world cognoscenti might instead prefer the term site-specific to describe this proclivity. Almost 20 years ago, the artist wrote to a European curator, “A large part of the work is what happens between paintings.” For example, an untitled canvas from 1999 hangs on a wall outside one of four walk-in spaces constructed for the show. Visible through the doorway is a smaller, less complicated version of the same picture. Nearby, two panels with numbers scrawled across their surfaces from 1999 face each other. The twist is that the numbers are all the same, except on one painting they were inscribed backwards.
When she was in graduate school, CalArts in Valencia was a bastion of installation art, and she made her fair share. In the Whitney catalogue, she recalled, “At first I would love my installations, but I’d come in the next day and think they had kind of died. They never had the longevity that my worst unfinished painting did.” There was a solution. Eventually, she “decided everything I was trying to do with installation a painting could do.”
During the mid-’90s, Owens’s work was spare and subdued, though that didn’t preclude there being complications. Conundrums abound in her oeuvre. Consider the canvases where she depicts a limited number of representational elements on broad planes of color or bare canvas. The show opens with one of them, an untitled work from 1996, whose rose and yellow ground would not have been out of place in “The Structure of Color,” a group show of color-focused abstraction curated by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney in 1971. Except the background is not an abstraction. The pattern of triangles mimics the petals of a flower, inspired by a logo belonging to a man named Rose that Owens had noticed. Completing her canvas, the young artist added several large globs of blue impasto with images of her own studio life embedded within them. Depending on the storyline you prefer, the creamy passages are either teardrops or drops of rain on the petals of a large, expanding rose.
Around the bend in the Whitney show, there’s another untitled painting, this one from 1994, which is divided in half. When the canvas is oriented so that the expanse of blue is on the bottom, it’s a seascape. When the pale ochre portion is displayed on the bottom, it’s a desert scene. It can be shown either way. Take note, too, of her understated depiction, from 1997, of a sequence of museum galleries with an artist’s easel front and center waiting for a painter to copy a masterpiece. That’s exactly what Owens, who was inspired by rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, did, putting her own spin on a van Gogh portrait she admired at the Windy City museum.
Another painting from 1997 illuminates Owens’s idiosyncratic approaches to other classic themes and subjects. A large seascape with lots of blue sky and a few soaring gulls also includes several shadows. The dark, cursive marks indicate that the whole scene is reflected in a mirror. Throughout the exhibition, you can notice Owens having fun with all sorts of details. A wall socket resembles the faces of snowmen made with pieces of coal for its two eyes and mouth. A Halloween mask worthy of Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame hovers in the wings of a bee. If Owens were older, you’d think she once enjoyed looking for the NINAs hidden in Al Hirschfeld’s theater caricatures in the New York Times Sunday Arts section.
Owens also has thought deeply and thoroughly about ways to install her art. Ninety-two small panels with mechanical parts and clock motors from 2011–12 are placed side-by-side and wrap around the tops of three perpendicular walls. Looking for 33 panels from 2012 made from acrylic, oil, vinyl paint, charcoal, yarn, and cord on hand-dyed linen calls to mind treasure hunts. Stacked in several tiers, only the top level of the pictures is visible above a wall that hides the rest of the set, all of which are mounted on a wall a few feet behind the one that blocks them. You need to walk through a snug passageway to view the ensemble. Another large group of acrylic and oil paintings from 2004–11 with representational subjects and historical styles is exhibited salon-style in one of the walk-in spaces.
During 2000, when she had a residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Owens was struck by the way the Boston-based collector displayed work in her Beantown palazzo. “This over-the-top installation made me think,” she mentioned in the Whitney catalogue, “ ‘What if I can get all this stuff I’m trying to do with my exhibitions and between the paintings into one painting?’ So that your eye is moving forward, sideways, and back into deep space.” At the time, Owens tried to achieve this with work featuring lots of “animals to shoot you around, and to let a painting be an autonomous object that can contain the whole idea of space in and of itself—and make you think about deep space and how space gets made.” She further added, “I also just felt like I had been relying too much on artwork being born out of the exhibition site.”
Holding this in mind is probably the best way to approach the large non-representational panels Owens has been executing since 2012. These canvases, especially the group known as “Pavement Karaoke,” are bold, handsome works that exemplify how a new wave of artists is approaching the making of abstract paintings. Instead of appropriating, say, the virtuoso, whiplash thin linear networks of a Willem de Kooning or an Arshile Gorky or the animated, poured skeins of black and white of a Jackson Pollock, Owens, among others, makes immaculate renderings of heroic, gestural brushstrokes. Backed by drop shadows, they practically hover in front of the panels. She takes them down a notch, too, by decorating these super-sized, creamy flourishes with stars, dots, and other extraneous marks. And, she has silhouetted these floating marks against the most unlikely of backgrounds: yards of collaged gingham cloth, the kind once identified with hearth and home in the form of aprons and tablecloths. Some works also incorporate want ads (seeking, among other people, a carpenter or a photographer) and other public notices of the kind that formerly filled the pages of local newspapers across the country. It’s a surprising place to find reading matter! But the artist has used these texts much the way she once deployed paintings within paintings, constructing a painting that connects to other places and forms of media.
In the catalogue, Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s chief curator and co-curator of this mid-career survey, points out that the “Pavement Karoke” series involves a “variety of techniques and materials.” They were far more complex to make than they appear to be. In addition to the collaged sections, Owens used silkscreens to apply the personnel ads and sought advice from a paint chemist before creating the brushstrokes. For Rothkopf, one of the best curators around, these works are “gutsy, assured, and urgent.”
At this point, the sky’s the limit for Owens, and these days, she appears to be exploring collage. The last section of the show reveals a variety of ways she’s doing this. A work from 2013 with spoked bicycle, stroller, and go-kart wheels of different sizes hovering above colored grids feels animated even though nothing moves. Think Hans Hofmann push/pull mashed up with Robert Rauschenberg. On the eighth floor, an installation piece involves five standing panels whose text can only be read when a viewer stands in just the right spot. More recent works from 2016 incorporate sound and have touches of color in the form of small, inset representational panels that contrast with pixel-like black and white wallpaper mounted on aluminum.
Not many solo shows make you wish you could see into the future. This is one of them.