The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

12 Paintings by LAURA OWENS

On View
356 Mission
January 20 – June 2013
Los Angeles

While messing around with the procedures of painting for the past 20-or-so years, Laura Owens has rebuilt the category of painting into something not to be messed with. Right now, she is on a tear. Nearly a decade after her last major show in Los Angeles (a well-deserved early survey at Museum of Contemporary Art), this exhibition of 12 11 1/2 × 10 foot paintings (each “Untitled,” 2013) hits like an earthquake, albeit one that re-stabilizes the ground beneath our feet. Installed seven-across-from-five on two facing walls in the expansive industrial building in Boyle Heights in which they were made (a 100 percent perfect situation), the paintings establish surprising connections between each other—and also between us and them—by combining sophistication with silliness and agility with stubbornness, all without enabling their contradictions to dismantle their overall cohesion.

Laura Owens, “Untitled,” 2013. Charcoal, acrylic, Flashe, and oil on linen, 137.5 x 120”. Photo courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.

These forceful paintings easily could have spun out if Owens wasn’t in complete physical control of everything in them; she remains mindful of crucial things beyond their edges, ensuring that the paintings’ material and pictorial conditions establish a social connection without sacrificing the integrity of their painterly moves. This last point, to my mind, is the most important thing that important painting does. And with that said, I’d be remiss in not acknowledging that in a recent Artforum interview, Owens made the best argument for painting that I have read in years, refusing to apologize for it while identifying its viable place alongside the considerable endeavors of what is now called social practice. Without this show, of course, her words could have been taken as wishful thinking. With it, they are loaded and then some, buoyed by the ballast of the paintings themselves, and, I would argue, a refreshing reality check for the rest of us.

Everyone who knows Owens’s work would know who made these paintings immediately. All of her signature components are here: depictions of landscape, seemingly borrowed; impeccably placed impasto brushstrokes; grids that turn into lattices when on the diagonal; enlarged loop-de-loops; enlarged doodles (yes, there are cats here); and, last but not least, those drop shadows that conjure up the likes of James Havard but somehow have always worked for her. Owens’s colors continue to be as dusty as they are bright, a contradiction I find irresistible because it merges the aforementioned sophistication with silliness, and best yet, connects her work with that of the master-of-calm-contradiction, John Wesley. However, one of Owens’s paintings in this show is straight up black-and-white, and another is black, white, and red all over. Both are like a newspaper in that their blown-up graphic marks—especially the supersized red hearts in the latter that look like they were made with a extra-extra-fat magic marker—establish the painting-as-a-text-to-be-read aspects of Owens’s enterprise. These two canvases play against other text-as-a-painting paintings that incorporate legible sections of want ads either across their expanses or in bits and pieces.

My favorite painting contains a crudely drawn sailing ship that tips forward toward the bottom right corner of the canvas. Rocked by an “absent” white wave that has one curlicue of white impasto in it, its situation is steadied by the strategic placement of painterly areas of color that conjure up land even if they are placed in what should be the sky of the painting. Its self-critical “knowing” is a joy to take in without being smart-alecky. (The influence of Joe Zucker is key here.)

That Owens could stay completely within the established pictorial and material parameters of her work while expanding its territory suggests that in the face of everything from relational aesthetics to provisional painting, there is still something powerful about the focus that painting provides, even, or especially, when it actively incorporates the distraction of a want ad (“WE HAVE A GREAT MESSAGE will share priceless truth”) or a menagerie of doodled LOL cats. When I first read Owens’s claim in her Artforum interview—that “painting does things, and why wouldn’t you use all the things it does?”—I said “yes!” out loud to myself. This exhibition is in the top five painting shows I have seen in my 25 year career, and I’m confident it will stay there for some time.

356 S. Mission Road. // Los Angeles, CA


Terry R. Myers

is a writer and independent curator based in Los Angeles, and an Editor-at-Large of the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues