New York

Laura Owens

Gavin Brown's Enterprise | Downtown

By now, we’ve come to expect stylistic eclecticism from Laura Owens. In one of her new paintings (all works untitled, 1998), whimsically plump bumblebees buzz around a colorful hive; another features a closely toned autumn landscape with an enameled sliver of blue brook and part of a tree limb poking into the picture. A couple of paintings resemble nothing so much as giant doodles—a curvilinear design, drawn with a silver pen and partially filled in with thin washes of murky magenta, covers the entire surface of one canvas; in another, loops of paint squeezed into wobbly circular shapes sit on the surface like thin coiled ropes of colored yarn. But then, a big abstract painting with mounds of ice-cream colors heaped on a sky-blue ground and sprinkled with chunks and flicks of paint is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

One of the most pronounced tendencies in painting in the late ’90s is an attraction to entropic sites—in Owens’s work, the exhaustion in question turns around the ever-moribund opposition between abstraction and representation. Precedents from the previous decade come readily to mind—Peter Halley’s geometric “cells” and “conduits,” Ashley Bickerton’s “wall” paintings, Philip Taaffe’s Newmanesque “zips.” By comparison, however, Owens’s work, while it plays fast and loose with the mixing of abstract and representational modes, never so much as hints at a dialectic: There’s no urge to rise from the ashes, to get somewhere else, to restore heroic achievement to painting, to prove a point. Instead, her canvases seem laid-back and whimsical. The “country-cute” beehive painting is rendered in a palette of brown, rust, orange, and gold that unmistakably suggests ’70s decor. The open, inviting landscape—are the floating monochromatic shapes rocks in a field, clouds in the sky, islands in the sea?—is lightheartedly reminiscent of retro, printed upholstery fabric. Much to her credit, Owens pulls off “casual” without resorting to big statements about being low-key. She makes painting look easy—too easy, perhaps, in the doodle pieces. But when she’s on her mark, the smooth, feel-good premise of her work is realized with extreme confidence, and we then see just how good a painter she is.

In the barely there, palomino-hued, autumn landscape, Owens’s relaxed sensibility translates as all the space and time in the world. A bright falling-leaf motif—a few red and gold leaves on the tree limb, others floating in the brook that winds languidly into deep space—is the only disruption in the light, scenic vista. The pleasurable infinity it suggests is as much a result of what she paints as how she paints it. Similarly, in her most ambitious “abstract” painting—the one with scoops of “tasteful” colors in pale blue, coffee, lime, and white—the carefree, even subtly euphoric play with paint seduces. The effervescing mounds are animated by an orbital field of painterly marks that spin off into blue space, nuggets of paint that seem to crash in fissures where edges don’t meet, and rainbow-variegated smears and squiggles that ricochet around the painting, sometimes spiraling into deep space, at other times slapping up against the picture plane. Nothing breaks the lyrical buoyancy and, by extension, the sense of well-being Owens describes. What’s equally impressive is her ability to render the space of painting so free and clear of its own historical baggage. In short, there’s little to buy into except the pleasure of painting, and paint wielded by someone who really knows what they’re doing—that’s always a thing of beauty to behold.

Jan Avgikos