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.