A cascade of florid forms tumbles across Laura Owens’s Untitled (2009), a swell of colour which conjures the perfect spring morning. Sweeps of cyan and slate and daubs of mauve, lavender, and cheery orange surge across the painting. The work’s surface is textured, flecked with colourful felt cut-outs and a black yarn harlequin pattern which Owens has woven into the muted linen. Diaphanous and ethereal, the painting’s seemingly romantic expressiveness belies Owens’s rigorous approach to the picture plane. Her works, which effortlessly shift between abstraction and figuration, reveal a discerning eye and keen awareness of form, colour, and line. The deconstructed imagery seems to sample the highly decorated interiors as depicted by the Post-Impressionists; Owens has cited Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne as early influences, and in the vibrant, vegetal geometries of Untitled are traces of their heady visions. In exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Vienna Secession, and Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art—where she was the youngest artist ever to be awarded a solo presentation—Owens has demolished the traditional boundaries that have for so long governed her medium.
Owens’s art embodies her own radically independent taste”
Owens’s output is dazzlingly diverse, and her creative practice dates back to her childhood; even before studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, she already considered herself a working artist. After completing her degree—as well as a master’s at the California Institute of the Arts—Owens moved to Los Angeles. Testing the boundaries of what is possible in painting, she combined and shuffled references and histories, from Japanese landscapes and American folk art to advertisements, colour field abstractions, and cartoons. ‘All art now is collage,’ she reflected in 2017, ‘Heterogeneous in form … Against the different paradigm of the Gestalt object, like a Jackson Pollock painting—a single image that jolts you. Now art is all about being constructed out of relationships between parts’ (L. Owens, quoted in P. Schjeldahl, ‘The Radical Paintings of Laura Owens’, The New Yorker, 30 October 2017). Accordingly, Owens makes little effort to cover up her influences or to stake herself to a particular school or genre. ‘Her eclecticism’, writes curator Paul Schimmel, ‘might have been taken as a symptom of indecision—the product of a wandering mind or a lack of discipline—had it not evolved into a profound ideological expression. Owens’s apparently unfettered approach to painting and the openness with which she gleans from the work of others is devoid of the ego that has marked much of painting of the recent past’ (P. Schimmel, ‘Plays Well With Others’, in Laura Owens, exh. cat. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 2003, p. 33).
Distinguished by a sly, comedic beauty, her work has a playful, knowing, almost-Rococo lightness of being in which pleasure, humour, intelligence and a seductive sense of usually high colour mingle freely”
The absence of arrogance owes much to Owens’ inclusive approach. Pluralism for the artist is both a mode of work and an aesthetic to probe. She is known to paint paintings within her paintings—and often asks others to fill in these tiny tableaux. Her meta-images both critique the medium in which she works and challenge the ahistorical trope of the singular artist working alone in their studio. In this vein, her recently closed solo exhibition Rerun, held at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a meditation on collaboration through the metaphor of time travel: across two galleries, her mature paintings were displayed alongside her teenage ephemera and juvenilia, all of which was curated in dialogue with a group of local teenagers. For Owens, painting is a way to connect across time and with diverse communities. Her paintings seem to dance among artists and centuries, charting a path through the canon, enthralled by the worlds they summon.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).