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Laura Owens Bonnefanten Museum Maastricht NL until 19 August

From:     v zwart
Category: Art
Date:     10 June 2007
Time:     03:32 AM


Lossy, but Loaded Laura Owens 
In a brief survey of her work currently on view at Maastricht’s Bonnefanten Museum, Laura Owens
compresses a world-embracing repetoire of high and low art references and reconstitutes them with a
lighthearted aesthetic pluralism. Owens caters for just about every taste, bringing to the canvas
American folk art, Chinese landscapes, children's illustrations, Eastern European embroidery
patterns, applied arts motifs, as well as more usual art historical references, like color-field

In explaining her borrowings and stylistic evasions, much has been made of the fact that her
training at Rhode Island School of Design involved the copying of masterworks. This motivation seems
too easy, and there’s nothing either pointed or searching about  Owens’ serial imitations. Her
paintings are like acts of cultural consumption: the  collecting, valuing, editing and assimilation
of everything coming within perceptual range. Her approach is that of contemporary pop music’s
‘mash-ups’ which combine diverse melodic and lyric samples to form new creations. 

By now, anyone born in the 70s (as Owens was) has experienced their culture in a second hand way as
nostalgia. Owens’ motifs are from the past and present of every kind of visual culture, whether it’s
a Fauvy Van Gogh’s postman or an East Indian-styled flower, Owens accesses a cultural nostalgia
which is either personal or collective, or both. But any expectations of finding a clear narrative,
artistic intention, or even an approximation of reality, are thwarted, which has the effect of
forcing autonomy on the viewer. Being cued up and then cut loose can be an uncomfortable experience
when you’re standing in front of an relatively empty painting. A good example is ”Untitled, 1997”
(illustration 45 in the accompanying catalogue), which features a flat blue sky over calm water,
rendered in three gradated layers of quarter-inch thick blue acrylic paint. Above the water, floppy
‘V’ birds soar. It’s all very Grade School cork board until your eyes reach the black impastoed dot
which, like the birds, also has its own spraypainted dropped shadow. Then things get very
complicated, or humourous, depending on your cast of mind. 
Provoking active and unproscribed viewership does seem to derive from her education, which reads
like an inditement of art scholarship in the early nineties. At the time, painting as an art
practice was out of favour. But tellingly, after studying installation art Owens still found even
“bad painting more interesting to look at than installations, which seemed like one-liners.” Space,
however, remains as an enduring fascination. Of her process Owens reveals: “I’m thinking about the
space, foreground, middle ground and background and deep space.” Her diptychs and paintings of
gallery interiors show this relation most clearly, but every painting has “something different
happening when you come closer”. Owens has at times even made the spatial issue obvious by
positioning marks on the floor for the viewer to stand at to view the paintings. 

The wide-open spaceness of Owens’ paintings is sometimes identified as coming from a Californian
sensibility, but their strong physicality as objects is calculated. Literally. As the artist has
said: “The most conscious thing in my mind is a formal interest in making the painting work as a
space, because you’re constantly moving through and around, it’s not one thing. The paintings are
thought of mathematically. How can the viewer keep moving through the space, never resting in one
spot, without the animals dominating or becoming the protagonist of the story so that everything is
equaled out.” Ms. Owens doesn’t want us to just stand around gawking, so if hers is a Californian
sensibility, then it’s one located somewhere down the hall from the State’s Department of Transport. 

Animals are often enlisted in Owens’ work as “…place-holders to move through. I’m interested in the
animals because you empathize with them.“ Frequently though, empathy with animals and insects has
more to do with feeling or intention being projected onto them.  “Untitled, 2004” (ill.145) is a ‘My
Little Pony’ version of the horse in Picasso’s Guernica, complete with a tail which like a café au
lait foam decoration. In redeploying the similarly-contorted horse which is the central figure in
Guernica, Owens is re-presents the many interpretations of the dying horse as a symbol in Picasso’s
anti-war painting, and of her own equivocal version painted in 2004, at a time when the excesses of
the War in Iraq in Abu Ghraib had just become known. 

Given the dominance of anti-painting and conceptualism during Owens’ artistically formative years,
it is little wonder that marginal cultural production attracted and sustains  her attention. Owens
highlights derivative cultural production by paralleling the internet phenomenon of photoshopped
mash-ups of The Bayeux Tapestry in Untitled , 2006. She also searches out and uses marginal styles
of applied arts and overlooked artists, much as Quentin Tarantino brings back forgotten Hollywood
stars. If Owens’ John Travolta is auto-didact Henri Rousseau, then her Pam Grier is mid-twentieth
century textile designer Vera Neumann. In “Untitled, 1998” (ill. ), a work with dimensions roughly
of a length textile, Owens honours the work of a neglected American designer best known for scarves
and housewares. Neumann also the first designer to incorporate her signature as a logo, a fact which
Owens, not known for signing her work in the picture area, alludes to by signing this painting
upside-down. In Owens’ work in general, pattern and colour establish active viewership by directing
the eye around active surfaces involving different kinds of paint application-- from unpainted
surface or staining to smooth-as-skin gesso to thick daubing. With these strategies, attempts at
formalist readings of her work are not only undermined, but frequently threaten to engulf her
subject matter, as in “Untitled, 2003” (ill.135), ”Untitled, 2006” (ill.168), and ”Untitled, 2006”
Another art world parochialism-defying aspect of the show is the room full of studies for the
paintings on exhibit. At the Bonnefanten these pictures are located at the beginning of the show,
affording yet more active viewering for anyone keen to compare Owens’ attempts to resolve her images
and techniques with the finished products. Such unselfconscious egalitarianism and modesty are
uncommon finds in a museum.
With all the aesthetic manipulation going on, it’s lucky that Owens’ paintings are not also
discursive into the bargin. Her oeuvre provides an absorbing challenge to those who prefer their art
to have something between the ears. These paintings are loaded with notions of the coexistence of
past and present, of collective and subjective memory, and the politics of aesthetic autonomy--
perhaps as a reaction to initial critical reception of early work which saw it as “kitschy” and
“girlish”. Her slightly iconic approach is "a matter-of-fact way … to take some of the preciousness
or exclusiveness out of the history of the practice." As with all her visual tropes, ideas belonging
to a legion of bold-face names of cultural theory, among them Adorno, Bahktin, Bergson, and Deleuze,
are strictly optional.  

What this survey shows is that the direct way in which Laura Owens’ work seems to speak to so many
means that art, and particularly art involving reiteration and the investiture of new subjective
meaning, does not necessisarily have to be ‘correctly’ coded and/or decoded to be enjoyed.

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