Owens does everything wrong, which makes her art so totally right. Cat doodles, children’s book illustrations, needlework, handicrafts—categories that are anathema to the conventions of professional, asset class, contemporary art.
Entering the survey of her work at the Geffen Contemporary, you are greeted by one of her largest paintings, a cartoonish green greeting card with the uplifting suggestion: “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot, and hang on.” A goofy smiling boy and his dog are hanging on but they are being split into pieces from the stress in the layered composition. Silly and profound, the 2015 painting summarizes the tribulations of an artist carrying on in the face of disinterest and distraction as well as an artist struggling to complete the process of a retrospective exhibition that would be shown at the Whitney in New York, the Dallas Museum as well as Moca in her home town of L.A.
Laura Owens, Untitled(detail), 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 1/2 x 2 5/8 in. (350.8 x 270.5 x 6.7 cm) overall, © Laura Owens, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchased with funds from Jonathan Sobel
Once inside the show, you’ll see two long rows of square paintings, many fitted with rotating hands like clocks but moving counter-clockwise. Time moving backwards is another fitting introduction to a retrospective. As you progress, other works are shown in a loose chronology and all seem as fantastically weird as when they were first made and shown here in L.A. and elsewhere over the past few decades. One gallery is dedicated to her big paintings of hives attended by fat bees rendered in thick tubes of orange and black paint. They are presented as decorative companions to the modernist-style furniture created by Jorge Pardo, then her partner. When shown together in 1998 at Patrick Painter Gallery, they asked the questions that have continued in her work. What is the demarcation between art and decoration? Why is art that is domestic and private not as privileged as art driven by public and institutional motives? Do artists have to be solitary figures or can they benefit from working with others?
Laura Owens, Untitled, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 72 in. (167.6 x 182.9 cm), collection of the artist, © Laura Owens, courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York and Rome; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
Owens has continued to seek answers to such queries.
Another wall of her show is hung with rows of square paintings, many with single letters, embellished by crewel embroidery.
They can be shown in any arrangement excepting the spelling of actual words. Owens has been an significant force in the L.A. art community since graduating from Cal Arts in 1994 but she was raised in Norwalk, Ohio and learned needledwork from her grandmother. Her studies with Mary Heilmann, recently shown at Hauser & Wirth, contributed to her ability to challenge serious conventions with a light touch. She is celebrated for her unusually open-armed embrace of other artists, most obviously in the exhibition space that she helped maintain for years at 356 S. Mission Road, though it has since closed.
Laura Owens, Untitled(detail), 2012, acrylic, oil, vinyl paint, charcoal, yarn, and cord on hand-dyed linen, 33 panels, 35 1/2 x 331/4 in. (90.2 x 84.5 cm) each, © Laura Owens, collection of Maja Hoffmann/LUMA Foundation
That collaborative, hard-working spirit is wonderfully on view in the exhibition catalogue. Unlike most catalogues with images chronologically arranged and essays by art historians or critics, this catalogue is a juicy, uninhibited delight. Oral histories, stories by fiction authors, essays by critics, reproductions of snapshots, letters, receipts, report cards, first hand reminiscences by the artist along with images from the actual exhibition make it akin to a lengthy studio visit. Astonishingly, she has printed an individual cover for each of 8,000 copies so that each is also a work of art. A few are embedded in the beige cushions that she made for benches in the galleries so you can sit and read it while looking at her work.
Laura Owens, Untitled, 2001, acrylic, oil, ink, and felt on canvas, 117 × 72 in. (297.18 × 182.88 cm), © Laura Owens, collection of Annie and Matt Aberle.
Owens has been making artist books since the ‘90s as a parallel pursuit. The printed word is fundamental to many of her paintings, some of which are printed with texts from old newspapers discovered as the insulation of her house when she was remodeling. Again, they document news from half a century past though she has inserted paragraphs of copy from current newspapers. Time is collapsed. In another series of paintings with printing, a phone number is scrawled. If you text it with a question, one of these paintings will answer with a recorded response. Art is meant to communicate, right?
Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013, acrylic, oil, and Flashe on canvas, 137 1/2× 120 in. (349.25 × 304.8 cm), © Laura Owens, collection of Peter Morton.
But back to the catalogue. Abandoning the pretext of a neutral or hidden biographical element to modern art, Owens claims actual life as a resource of deep meaning for herself as well as viewers.
The catalogue, like the exhibition, was organized by Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf and presented here by Moca curator Bennett Simpson with Rebecca Matalon. It is Owens second survey at Moca. Her first was in 2003 when she appeared as a young artist of great promise, promise fulfilled in this retrospective. Installed with Owens active involvement, the exhibition is simply the triumph of joy over fear, the fear of making a mistake. For Owens, two wrongs do make a right. This has all the right stuff, standing as one of the most memorable exhibitions of recent years. If you want to feel hopeful, go see it.
It is on view through March 25, 2019.