Laura Owens is not an -ism


Laura Owens at the Whitney Museum of American Art

A quick look through my notes on this mid-career retrospective of American artist Laura Owens reads like a run through an art history textbook, with undiluted visual references as historically diverse as the Bayeux tapestry and the readymade. Terms like trompe l’oeil and single point perspective would make you think the Whitney had put on a show of Renaissance painting, but what you see are no Leonardos. What you do see is difficult to categorize and might be, at first sight, incoherent. But look closer, and you’ll find that the Whitney, thanks to Owens’ deep and humorous intelligence, has put on a show that manages to be simultaneously unserious and important, which is an achievement not least because, well, when was the last time you encountered an artist who wasn’t suffering from symptoms of an overblown ego?

Owens has not allowed a set of rules and a few sentences to describe how she makes art or what appears in it. While her body of work hangs together in a way that allows us to leave the retrospective feeling like we understand the ethos of the artist, even if we haven’t ingested it wholesale, if I try to generalize the artist’s practice I can only come up with words so vague and unsatisfying they might describe any artist. “Laura Owens is interested in perspective,” I might say. Or, “Laura Owens is skilled in layering her canvas,” or duller still, “Laura Owens plays with texture.” Laura Owens is not an –ism.

Some examples of Owens' diverse style and subject matter

Some examples of Owens' diverse style and subject matter

What she is is very intelligent. She’s not just knowledgeable about using the canon of art history like so many artists these days are (think Jeff Koons and Kehinde Wiley), but she is smart. Cleverness in art is often quippy, a play on words (hello, Marcel Duchamp) or a visual pun, but while Owens is often funny, her humor and intelligence have depth that reverberates from the surface inwards, as well as between canvases. (This is why a retrospective of her work is such a rare and important privilege.)

Take Untitled from 1997, which depicts a gallery space within which a blank canvas stands. The right side of the composition is dominated by a series of doorways, which recede into the distance, ending in a closed door. The fact that we as viewers are standing in a gallery not so different from the one depicted is of course a part of the point, but meta-visualizing a painting and its context is not at all novel (just walk uptown to the Frick to see the exhibition of 17th century Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s work in which his subject often lays his hand on the painting’s frame, as if he were about to reach out to shake your hand). What Owens does here deserves much more thought than a tossed off explanation that the artist seeks to remind her viewer that painting is an object with a spatial context.

"Untitled," 1997

"Untitled," 1997

Think about how the eye moves through this painting. The over the top textbook use of single point perspective draws the eye inward as it gives the illusion of depth. Once the eye no longer has space to move (that is, it has reached the end of the passageway), it circles back to the “subject” of the work, the blank canvas. Except this canvas is literally that—Owens has neglected to paint the space that stands in for the canvas, so what is left exposed is the canvas upon which the rest of the image is painted. This encounter with the physical object of canvas (in addition to its representation) reminds us what it is that we’re looking at—a stretched piece of fabric covered in paint and not, in fact, a gallery space. So as our eye continues circling and is again drawn into the receding space of the painted gallery, this time around we abut the flat canvas beneath the paint, even as it's moving “deeper” into painted space. This might be a nudge at Greenbergian theory, the writings of an art historian that have dominated the art historical capital-C Conversation for the past fifty years, a tongue-in-cheek perversion of his emphasis on painting’s tendency towards flatness across history. I was certainly chuckling as I turned away from the work, art nerd that I am.

An exhibition goer marvels at Owens' virtuosity with paint

An exhibition goer marvels at Owens' virtuosity with paint

Our walk through the theory of art takes a turn in the next gallery, where Owens asks us to stop thinking so much and start seeing a little more. The 20th century social anthropologist Alfred Gell wrote of the “technology of enchantment,” or the way a painter can manipulate familiar tools to create an element of magic in his or her work. I first encountered this idea in intently staring at the whisper thin roemer glasses in Dutch still life painting, simultaneously there and not there. How did Pieter Claesz. and others take substance (that is, paint) and make it into non-substance (the transparency of glass)? Laura Owens continues to prove the virtuosity of the painter, but in wholly different ways, creating shadow effects that have her exuberant swipes on the canvas stand out as if they floated above it. They do something like what the Abstract Expressionists did, yet takes their gestures to a place they wouldn't go in 1950s. They remind us why painting is not an obsolete art form, unlike the prevailing teaching Owens encountered as an art student in the 1990s (that is, that her professors couldn't be bothered with it). Astoundingly, these enormous garish canvases, far from being beautiful, link themselves to the highest achievements of beauty produced by the hand of (wo)man—those drawings and paintings that make you stop and ask, “how on Earth did (s)he do that?” whether they be the drawings of Michelangelo or the intricate church mosaics for which we have the Byzantine Empire to thank. This series of Owens' work is what has been lost in art: the pure pleasure of looking, reveling in that which the artist is capable.

Upon closer inspection Owens' sometimes too clean looking canvas is punctuated with impasto to rival van Gogh 's

Upon closer inspection Owens' sometimes too clean looking canvas is punctuated with impasto to rival van Gogh's

This exhibition ends on a dash—Laura Owens is not yet forty years old and by no means has come to a full stop. The variance in the twenty-five years she has been working promises to continue to bring painting to new levels of innovation, humor, and, most thrillingly, relevance.

Laura Owens

Whitney Museum of American Art

99 Gansevoort Street 

Until February 4, 2018