Art Review: The Comedic Beauty of Laura Owens’s Work

In a 1998 collaboration with the artist-designer Jorge Pardo, Ms. Owens acknowledges the role of painting as décor. He made simple bedroom sets in shades of brown, orange and pale greens. She made matching paintings that depict large beehives with loopy, cross-pollinating bees buzzing about — a scene she found embroidered on a thrift shop pillow.

A striking recent abstraction, big and red, is dotted with over a dozen wheels (bicycle, stroller, go-kart). It may pay tribute to Marcel Duchamp’s first bicycle-wheel ready-made, but it also echoes a small red painting here — a putative flower still life whose blooms are sewn-on buttons. A recent canvas could be a monumental tribute to Jackson Pollock’s swirling allover compositions — even though it is made entirely of cats, drawn freehand in charcoal, pinned down with bits of printed grid and punctuated with bursts of spray paint.

The show — organized by Scott Rothkopf, the museum’s deputy director of programs and chief curator, and Jessica Man, an assistant curator — is accompanied by an innovative scrapbook of a catalog that has the thickness and glossy pages of a September issue of Vogue, which somehow fits. In another instance of Ms. Owens’s generosity: each cover (of the first run of over 8,000 catalogs) is a one-of-a-kind silk-screen made by the artist and her crew.

The catalog brims with archival material — notes, sketches, news releases and price lists — and photographs superimposed, with drop shadows galore. Interspersed are oral histories and comments from family, friends, collaborators, former teachers and students. Although there are several essays, the totality is a kind of biography in the raw. (The only downside is that it’s not so useful as a record of the actual show.) It documents Ms. Owens’s thinking and working processes, her artistic community and the nuts and bolts of her career, starting with typed letters and proceeding to email and text exchanges with dealers and curators, even those for this show. Designed by Tiffany Malakooti, the catalog takes brilliant advantage of Ms. Owens’s apparent reluctance to throw things out.

This smart, beautiful exhibition bodes well for painting, exhibition-making and even art-book design. The combination exudes an optimism like that accompanying Kerry James Marshall’s thrilling retrospective at the Met Breuer last year. These two artists are very different, but their basic message is that painting can be renewed in ways we haven’t seen before, whether it is reshaped by Mr. Marshall’s erudite meditation on black life in America, or exploded from within, as in Ms. Owens’s worldly, encompassing formalism. That neither artist is among the usual white male suspects confirms once more that difference and diversity are essential to cultural vitality.

Continue reading the main story

Leave a Response