At a time when anything can be considered art, Laura Owens does all of it with impunity. She draws in paint with a loaded brush while bringing together various forms of mechanical and digital reproduction, essentially bridging a binary that the art world has focused on since the 1960s: the hand-painted versus the machine-made. There are other binaries that she also bridges, all of them said to be of historical importance: the relationship between abstraction and figuration, and between sincerity and irony, for example.
Owens, who was born in Euclid, Ohio, in 1970 and now lives in Los Angeles, came of age after the Pictures Generation superseded Neo-Expressionism. For her, like many artists of her generation, everything is a readymade. This includes paint (another tool at her disposal); Color Field painting; the brushstroke, squiggle, and line; Chinese and Japanese art; Indian miniatures; abstraction; figuration; abstract illusionism; inspirational posters; children’s book illustrations; greetings cards; thrift store merchandise; wheels from bicycles, go carts, and strollers; buttons; embroidery and appliqué; mythology; essays on other artists. Owens is unabashed about displaying her gluttony.
The mid-career survey, Laura Owens at the Whitney Museum of American Art (November 10, 2017 – February 4, 2018), presents around 70 paintings in different sizes – from wall-mounted works, to installations, to carefully arranged freestanding canvases painted on both sides. Subject-wise, it goes from charming animals, including a horse that barely fits inside the painting’s rectangle and a friendly-looking monkey, to text-based works, which include a sketch of a sailboat done by the artist’s grandfather, and a drawing and story written by her middle-school-aged son when he was bored, arranged across five freestanding panels and only readable when the viewer stands in the right place. The hanging runs the gamut, from conventionally discrete distances between paintings, to a salon-style arrangement around a bench, to a frieze of panels based on clock faces, to a grid of works that another wall partially obscures. Clearly, there is something for everyone.
Organized by Scott Rothkopf, the museum’s deputy director of programs and chief curator, and Jessica Man, a curatorial assistant, the show is accompanied by a catalog of more than 650 pages, which includes a memoir by the artist’s mother, Carol Hendrickson, a public health nurse, who lives with her second husband next door to Owens and her family; testimonies about how wonderful Owens is as a person and a painter from a bevy of artists, curators, dealers, and studio assistants; price lists from early exhibitions; essays, including one about Elizabeth Murray by Francine Prose; statements by influential people who were among the first wave to recognize her importance. In his essay, Rothkopf writes: “and we both fell in love and attended each other’s weddings.”
Along with these texts and testimonies, the scrapbook-cum-catalog is full of reproductions of letters that Owens wrote to various figures, along with notes to herself, lists, photographs taken by her and her friends, including one of the artist and her birthday cake, which was based on one of her paintings. By seeming to offer snippets from the everyday life of a privileged member of the art world clubhouse, it celebrates upward mobility while reveling in its cliquishness. I felt as if I were looking at stills and props from a reality TV show called “Keeping Up with Laura Owens.”
An acutely self-conscious artist, Owens often makes paintings that cite her own paintings. She has also paintings filled with images of beehives and buzzing bees because they are industrious and make honey. These works go well with the bedroom sets created by artist-designer Jorge Pardo in their homey collaboration. In an untitled 1997 abstract seascape that is mostly blue sky, she painted two thick black lines (birds) with drop shadows for a trompe l’oeil effect. In this and a number of other paintings, Owens is interested in degraded opticality – the meeting of Clement Greenberg’s purity with what he hated, kitsch. The result is a work that is affably perverse. The emptiness found at the heart of this painting is prevalent to a greater and lesser degree in all of the work, most often merged with self-conscious charm buttressed by a bit of theory. As if deflecting charges of elitism, Owens seems determined that her work not appear hermetic or difficult, and that entertainment is a constant feature of everything she does. These are perfectly catered works for a variety of discerning palates.
In “Untitled” (2014), which is derived from an inspirational poster you might see in the hallway of an elementary school, Owens makes a few additions and interruptions to the image of man whose head has become a lemonade juicer, with his bald pate joined to a blue funnel and his nose as the spigot. In another, related painting, a boy and dog dangle from a rope, accompanied by the words: “When you come to the end of your rope, you make a knot, and hang on.”
What is striking about the works in this exhibition is how completely sterile, mainstream, and middlebrow they feel, with just enough insider info to flatter the viewer who knows something about Roland Barthes. An untitled painting from 1997 of a series of diminishing columnar rectangles evokes a perspectival view of an avenue lined with high-rise office buildings, while seeming to riff off the work of 1980s art star Mark Innerst. A more recent drawing-painting of outlined cats against an abstract ground punctuated by a few hits of red, yellow, and blue, is a friendly, domesticated transformation of Jackson Pollock’s all-over abstractions.
These are works that so want to be liked that whatever strangeness they embody is always held in check; they never go too far in any direction or wander off the road. By doing just enough to her readymades, with an infectious zeal and lots of elbow grease, Owens makes distinctive works that fit in perfectly with the times. Critics, curators, and collectors concur. This exhibition is the official anointing of an American genius.
Laura Owens continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through February 4, 2018.