Daniel Larkin (right) looks at “Wig Mountain” (2009) at the opening of The Gnastic Pursuit in Bushwick

The opening for Brent Owens recent show at the English Kills Art Gallery in Bushwick looked like an American Apparel ad. Vintage clothes paired with recent trends speckled the room with muted grays, maroons, and deep olives. Owens’ vivid colors stood out. Just as street fashion borrows from the past to invigorate the irony of the present, Owens likewise takes the rich tradition of wood carving and melds it with that millennial taste for biting wit and quirks of fate.

Art always looks so great at English Kills because it’s not stuck against the bleached background of the white cube. White walls can scream so brightly and end up competing for the eye’s attention. That dingy warehouse floor and unfinished walls are part of the glory of this space. Owens’ freestanding wood sculptures and wood reliefs were scattered throughout the space — and really took it over. Spread far apart from each other, you could approach each object on its own terms.

Detail of Brent Owens, “Please Just Keep Shutting Up” (2008) (click to enlarge)

Painting on wood instead of canvas tinges every color brown in a way that catches you off-guard. Owens’ color spectrum is filled with burnt oranges, deep greens, slightly murky yellows, and whites with a touch of mud popping through. You can’t find these colors on clothes racks or computer screens because wood uniquely transforms color. Our language’s vendetta against these muddy colors makes it tough to write glowingly about Owens’s hues, which conjure the tonalities of brightly painted but aging marionette puppets. If only we could ask Geppetto to vividly describe these colors.

It all came together in Owens most ambitious sculpture of a tall pile of Wigs, “Wig Mountain” (2009). The carved wigs vary in color from deep red, to blonde, and last but not least brunette. Strands of hair were carefully carved into the wood, it was an object that rewarded close scrutiny. The wigs stacked up organically like a mound, which can be tough to pull off when you are working in a subtractive manner. The work’s closest visual analogy would be the view of the obscure painted hills in Oregon. And that comb at the top seemed to “activate” the sculpture by making it less pretentious and wackier. To be blunt, there can be something almost gross about just “flaunting” the word carving technique. The comb broke that circuit.

Brent Owens, “Golden Brown Femme Fatale” (2009)

Another strong work was a tree trunk, partially split in half, which Owens casts as a female torso, “Golden Brown Femme Fatale” (2009). Owens’ original goal was to actually split the trunk entirely. But a technical problem with his chainsaw made it impossible for him to finish. But as he looked at this half-cut trunk, he realized that the damage done could become a vagina. As he took the work in a new direction, he realized that a female wooden torso by itself would not feel so remarkable. Just like the comb in “Wig Mountain,” Owens introduced another spunky element to spice things up. In this work, it’s a shiny piercing that dangles from her belly button. It totally doesn’t jive with the rest of the work and it come off with a laugh.

Finally, there’s this pair of wooden shoes with intricately carved shoe-laces, “Level 1” (2009). Owens slips bubble tubes in at the base. Such virtuoso displays of skill are seldom marinated with a sense of humor.

Detail of “Level One” (2009) (click for an image of the whole sculpture)

Another group of works featured phrases that likewise did not put on airs. The words rolled off the tongue so awkwardly. But that’s the point, because no one actually speaks like a Jane Austen character.

Each Owens work throws a curveball at the viewer. The comb at the summit, the bling-bling at the belly, the balance tubes on the sole, or the weird phrase, all throw you off-kilter and provoke a laugh. At least, if you take art lightly. These elements give his work some wry weight and humorous heft, which differentiates them from the trite simplicity that can sabotage craft.

The Gnastic Pursuit closed October 10, 2009, at English Kills.

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