Tag Archives: Laura Owens

“Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Installation of “Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art; Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

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Wandering through “Laura Owens,” I couldn’t help but wonder when The Whitney (or MOMA) (or The New Museum) (or name the venue) will be mounting a retrospective of paintings by James Havard. Should the name not ring a bell, perhaps the art movement of which Havard is an exemplar will: Abstract Illusionism. Should that strike a similarly muffled note, consider the floating brushstroke—a thick slur of paint, typically rendered in acrylic, with a cast shadow airbrushed below it. During the mid-1970s, Abstract Illusionism—a showy amalgam of The New York School, Pop Art, commercial illustration, and trompe-l’oeil painting—was, if not the rage, then notable enough to elicit its fair share of adherents and collectors. The style isn’t without its gratifications—an attraction to novelty seems to be woven into our DNA—but there’s a reason Abstract Illusionism has a slim purchase on popular memory: contrivance and trickery don’t tend to have legs. Illusionism may be an integral component of the art of painting, but when it’s put forth as style—denatured, slick, and wholly self-referential—it can make for vacuous going.

How familiar Laura Owens (b. 1970) is with Abstract Illusionism, I don’t know. She must be: the correspondences between her work and that of Havard are uncanny. The most consistent motif in Owens’s oeuvre is, after all, the floating brushstroke—endowed, at this historical juncture, with a glossy sheen redolent of digital technology. Impastoed patches of oil paint hover over the surfaces of the pictures; “under,” too—Owens enjoys trading in now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t perceptual games. How the accompanying shadows are painted is a mystery. In the age of Photoshop, do people still use airbrushes? In terms of media or genre, Owens is up for anything. No methodology or style, whether high tech or old school, is out of bounds. Threading needle through canvas and color correcting on the computer; imagining Morris Louis by way of Damien Hirst; advertising intimacy while embracing anonymity; flouting idiosyncrasy and poaching upon the industrial; positing superficiality as abundance—it’s all good. “I really believe,” Owens stated in a recent interview, “that art can do things that other things don’t do.” So how come “Laura Owens” is marked by a fizzy air of desperation?

Owens’s art doesn’t usher in an era of meaninglessness; it serves as blissful confirmation. Postmodernism, having undergone an ignoble passing, has nonetheless left an indelible mark on culture. Descriptors like “kitsch” and “pastiche” don’t signify for a generation weaned on value-free nostrums. Over-intellectualization in the cause of self does. In the exhibition catalogue—an immaculately designed production that aspires to being slapdash—we encounter a 1994 notebook in which Owens lists “things my paintings mean to me.” Coming in at numbers 1 and 2 are “Fuck Everyone!” Dismiss this as pro forma juvenilia if you’d like, but, in the end, isn’t Owens’s mot the operating theory behind Postmodernism and its forebear Conceptual Art—that is to say, a distinct turn away from engaging with an audience to the me-me-me imperatives of The Artist? Reading on, we learn of Owens’s goal to create “nothing whole/nothing completely convinced” and of a “short attention span & my self consciousness towards mark making.” Credit goes where dubious credit is due: Owens has fulfilled these ambitions. At the Whitney, ADHD has been transformed from a quantifiable medical disorder into guilt-free entertainment.

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Detail of Laura Owens, Untitled, 2014. Ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, oil, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue on linen and polyester, five parts: 138 1/8 x 106 ½ x 2 5/8 in. (350.8 x 270.5 x 6.7 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Jonathan Sobel  2014.281a-e. © Laura Owens

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Owens puts one in mind of Robert Rauschenberg. Like Rauschenberg, albeit with less bonhomie or grit, Owens is a work-horse with a “can do” attitude, an omnivorous temperament for whom no medium is off limits and collaboration is a token of democratic goodwill. The materials that go into a single Owens piece can be dizzying. An untitled work from 2014—seemingly based on a Hallmark card— was made with ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue-on-linen—done in five parts, no less! Overall, Owens’s paintings skew large—a typical canvas measures around six by eight feet. When the work isn’t large, it’s copious in amount. An untitled suite of canvases, each measuring twenty-four inches square, numbers in the nineties, although only fifty-four are on view. These smaller works either line the upper reaches of the gallery or are cordoned off in a darkened passageway. (Actually seeing the paintings is, apparently, beside the point.) The entirety of the eighth floor contains an installation of five huge, freestanding paintings. Set apart at intervals of several yards, these pictures—done on “powder-coated aluminum strainers”—feature, on one side, oversized reproductions of a handwritten story by Owens’s son, Henry; on the other, silk-screened marks and notations, oversized again.

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Installation of “Sunlight arrives only at its proper hour”, 2017; courtesy 356 Mission Road

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Stand at a specific angle in the gallery and you’ll see how the disparate panels align into an M. C. Escher–like orchestration of thwarted perspectives. Elsewhere, Owens mixes and matches cartoonish paintings of beehives with bedroom sets designed by Jorge Pardo, and welcomes the assistance of sundry technicians and craftsmen, not least the carpenters who custom made the benches at the Whitney—each of which serves as a repository for the exhibition catalogue. The most newsworthy of Owens’s partnerships is 356 Mission Road, a community art center in Glendale, California. A joint venture with her dealer Gavin Brown and Wendy Yao, a friend and bookseller, 356 Mission Road has been the subject of criticism by the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, a community-activist group “born from the complex specificities of Los Angeles.” This free-form coalition has accused Owens of aiding and abetting the gentrification of the surrounding working-class neighborhood. In a statement, Owens responded to the group’s protests with deliberation and evident sensitivity. Which may be the only time the artist has, albeit under a cloud of bad PR, acknowledged an audience—any audience—in a constructive manner. At the Whitney, in distinct contrast, out-reach isn’t in the mix—unless, that is, one derives satisfaction in the pretensions of official culture indulged in at their most willful, overweening, and gratuitous.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

“The Forever Now” at The Museum of Modern Art

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Charlene Heyl, Carlotta (2013), oil, synthetic polymer paint and charcoal on canvas, 6’10” x 6’4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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I met a sculptor for coffee recently, and the subject of noteworthy exhibitions came up for discussion—as it invariably does for artists working in New York City. The inescapable show on the agenda was “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, the show was a blatant sop to the box office, but the French master’s late manner is among the most sumptuous achievements of twentieth-century art, and MOMA did Matisse proud, crowd control and all. Woe betide the seventeen artists included in “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition sharing the museum’s sixth floor with “The Cut-Outs.” My sculptor friend observed that these painters must be humbled by having their work adjacent to that of Matisse. How could any serious artist not be? After visiting “The Forever Now,” a different question demands to be asked: Are the featured painters even capable of recognizing Matisse’s greatness? Their art is, on the whole, absent the rigor, clarity, and joy inherent in even the least of the collages. A better title for the mish-mosh that is “The Forever Now” might be “Dazed and Confused” or, given that it follows on the heels of “The Cut-Outs,” “Buzzkill.”

That isn’t what Laura Hoptman and Margaret Ewing, respectively the Curator and Curatorial Assistant of MOMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, would like us to believe. “The Forever Now,” they insist, captures a moment in which our cognizance of history has been transformed beyond understanding, largely because of the internet. “What characterizes our cultural moment,” Hoptman writes, “is the inability—or perhaps the refusal—of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live.” Atemporality, a phrase coined by the science-fiction writer William Gibson, denotes a world in which history has been rendered static and diffuse through technological advances. “The atemporal song, story, or painting contains elements of history but isn’t historical; it is innovative but not novel, pertinent rather than prescient.” Utilizing the “connoisseurship of boundless information,” the curators posit the atemporal aesthetic as optimistic, a “hopeful, even invigorating quest . . . [for] a broader, bolder notion of culture.” The irony the curators miss (or ignore) is how temporal their ideas are. The exhibition has hardly been mounted and it already feels out of date.

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Joe Bradley, Man Made Dirigible (2008), grease pencil on canvas, 5′ x 8′; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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“The Forever Now” is MOMA’s first overview of contemporary painting in thirty years. (That it’s taken the premier museum of modern art that long to get its act together vis-à-vis the artform is its own disheartening statement.) The curators are desperate to prove painting relevant by top-loading it with up-to-the-moment nomenclature and references. Scan the catalogue and wall labels; you’ll come across a daunting amount of heady thinking and sweeping statements. Were you aware that we collectively suffer from “teleologically programmed brains” or that zombies “are perfect embodiments of the atemporal”? The latter is a telling and trendy ploy. Rather than stick their necks out to prove that painting continues to be a viable means of artistic expression, the curators provide themselves with an out. The dead-but-alive trope is beyond convenient, allowing for wiggle room in which to hedge bets about the choices that have been made. Forget William Gibson: the real inspiration here is Vladimir Botol, the Slovenian author who coined the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” So much for connoisseurship and optimism. “The Forever Now” is an unwitting exercise in, you know, whatever.

Of course, any institution attempting to provide a coherent overview of a cultural moment is asking for trouble, and, in that regard, Hoptman and Ewing should be cut some slack. Who doesn’t want to grab a handle, any handle, in these slippery times? Forget artists; everyone is alternately entranced and befuddled by our technological moment. It’s not so much that history is in flux—come on, history is always in flux—but that its reach has become so encompassing and immediate. In a world overrun by virtual imagery, it’s little surprise that makers of pictures and objects have become antsy, looking over their shoulders lest the tide passes them by. This doesn’t mean, however, that an overweening degree of self-consciousness—the chief characteristic defining “The Forever Now”—qualifies this-or-that painter as an oracle or mirror. How does “squatting in [the] foreclosed real estate” of art history qualify as a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon? With the exception of our forebears painting on the cave wall—who, after all, started the whole thing from scratch—artists of every epoch have relied and thrived on the fluidity of history. Sure, the world was once a smaller place. But to conclude that its increasing rapidity and breadth put a stop on culture is to indulge in a short-sighted brand of historical arrogance.

116441Laura Owens, Untitled (2013), Flashe paint, synthetic polymer paint and oil stick on canvas, 11’5-3/8″ x 9’7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Then again, perhaps MOMA’s crystal ball is clear in its reflections. If so, our permanent future is blatantly second-hand. Pastiche is the coin of the realm. The artists included in “The Forever Now” can’t see a hard-won individual style for a distracting grab-bag of visual tics. Slacker professionalism is the atemporal rule. Josh Smith has nothing to paint about so he paints everything, including rehashes of Neo-expressionism which was enough of a rehash the first time around. Joe Bradley’s scrawled stick figures make Jean-Michel Basquiat look like Michelangelo; Laura Owens employs Photoshop as a means of resurrecting Abstract Illusionism—you remember, the floating brushstroke school of painting long consigned to the dustbin of kitsch. Oscar Murillo is, I am told, the artist of the moment; the expert riffs on Rauschenbergian assemblage take second place to his unstretched canvases piled on the floor, through which viewers are welcome to rifle. Such gimmickry is typical, and connotes nothing so much as a loss of scope and invention. The lone exceptions are Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, and, maybe, Charlene von Heyl and Michael Williams, each of whom possesses an engagement with the medium that hints at some kind of forward momentum. How well they’ll follow up on it remains to be seen, but, in at least this one pivotal respect, their work exposes the ready-made obsolescence at the core of “The Forever Now.”

© 2015 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the March 2015 edition of The New Criterion.