For more than twenty years, Los Angeles–based artist Laura Owens has pioneered an innovative approach to painting that has made her one of the most influential artists of her generation. Her bold and experimental work challenges traditional assumptions about figuration and abstraction, as well as the relationships among avant-garde art, craft, pop culture, and technology.
This mid-career survey, the most comprehensive of Owens’s work to-date, will feature approximately 60 paintings from the mid-1990s until today. The exhibition will highlight her significant strides over the past few years, showing how the early work sets the stage for gripping new paintings and installations.
Owens emerged on the Los Angeles art scene during the mid-nineties, at a time when many in the critical establishment viewed painting with suspicion. Her early canvases upended the traditions of painterly abstraction by incorporating goofy personal allusions, doodling, and common craft materials. These works often demonstrated her keen interest in how paintings function in a given room and used illusionistic techniques to extend the plane of a wall or floor directly into the space of her pictures. More recently, she has charted a dramatic transformation in her work, marshaling all of her previous interests and talents within large-scale paintings that make virtuosic use of silkscreen, computer manipulation, digital printing, and material exploration. The Whitney has a longstanding commitment to Owens, who has been featured in two Biennials, and is significantly represented in the Museum’s collection.
One of my favourite pieces was Pavement Karaoke/Alphabet. The letters are ‘cutouts’ of lines of small print taken from the classifieds of the Berkeley Barb, a countercultural newspaper in circulation in the 60s and 70s, screen printed onto the painting. The words fade in and out of view, obscured and camouflaged inside the dense undergrowth of marks that Owens has woven across the image plane.
The paintings are so overloaded and crowded with a cacophony of diverse voices that they strain under the weight of their desire to communicate by any means – by every possible means. Hatches, grids, chequered patterns, collaged gingham fabric, scattered lava rock, pools of translucent pink pigment, and thickly laid patches of extreme impasto – all pull the paintings to the limit. These are paintings taken to the brink of collapse, yet they hold together and achieve balance, weightlessness and urgency.