New York

Laura Owens, Untitled, 1998, acrylic and oil on canvas, 84 x 96".

Laura Owens, Untitled, 1998, acrylic and oil on canvas, 84 x 96".

Laura Owens

There are some very good paintings in MoCA’s Laura Owens survey—particularly the large decorative landscapes painted between 1999 and 2002 that borrow from Chinese scroll and screen painting, the rococo pastorals of Beauvais tapestries, and the peaceable critterdom of children’s-book illustration. Notable in their absence, though, are a couple of the artist’s very strong early works that take pluralism in the museum and a modest and collaborative approach to painting as their relatively explicit subject. It’s a way of working that continues to inform Owens’s output and that has been an especially important model for a number of younger painters.

In his catalogue essay, curator Paul Schimmel takes one of those missing paintings, dated 1995, as an emblem for Owens’s relationship to her sources and to painting’s history. In it, a sloping beige floor rises to a narrow strip of museum wall, where some sixty paintings hang. Rendered in shorthand, they catalogue Owens’s interests and influences, and their salon-style hanging suggests a refusal of both a singular history and an emplotted present for painting. Certain of the depicted canvases are doubly authored; there are recognizable miniatures of Mondrian and Rothko, and even of this particular Owens. Others are multiply or anonymously so: Owens invited friends and family to paint their work into hers, opening up the painting and spreading its authorship still further.

The title of Schimmel’s catalogue essay, “Plays Well with Others,” points nicely to the stylistic and authorial openness of Owens’s paintings and to the lightness with which they take their history. A phrase from grade-school report cards, the title also speaks, perhaps paternalistically, to Owens’s youth; she is, at thirty-two, by a number of years the youngest painter MoCA has surveyed in such depth. Both Schimmel’s essay and Thomas Lawson’s contribution seem written partially in defense of the museum’s choice. Lawson’s text is fashioned around a series of “beginnings” and “attempts,” both his and hers, and Schimmel proposes not only Owens’s early work but student work in general as a model for her continuing approach, writing that her “reluctance to lay claim to a fixed position might at one time have been attributed to youth (certainly it is characteristic of much student work) but is now an integral aspect of Owens’s methodology.”

Owens’s work moves easily from representation to abstraction—or maybe hovers between them—but then, so does most painting since the 1980s, and after Richter and Polke. Her work is marked neither by agon and the anxiety of influence nor by irony; nor does it lead back to a heightened subjectivity, either as self-assertion or lack. Owens’s use of Frankenthaler and Olitski, a couple of familiar foils, is not a strategy to mark the death of painting, but a tactical approach to actually making one. Among the exhibition’s strongest works is Untitled, 1998, in which nesting arcs of stained color lifted from early-’60s Olitski are dotted with swatches of impasto that seem to take the arcs as structural or even narrative space, reaching across them or hovering on their edges. Owens frequently plays the Olitskian trope of layering crusts of impasto against flat areas of color, but here, as elsewhere, she pulls the impasto away from the edge and toward a scene; it appears in the landscapes refigured as bits of botany or zoology.

Despite Owens’s studied idiosyncrasy, her paintings are relatively detached and emotionally cool; that’s part of their openness. One of the ways they misstep is by offering protagonists in whom we might invest: the contemporary couple kissing, the girl on horseback under the stars. Her works function most effectively not as stories but as mise-en-scènes; the best are not built across a surface by juxtaposition or collage, but composed as tableaux. The question isn’t one of abstraction versus representation necessarily, though a few of the least successful works are in fact large abstractions suffering from too much space or too little paint. Instead, it’s closer to a choice between absorption and blankness, and about the demeanor a painting might have.

Most of the criticism Owens has received, good or bad, has invoked a consistent list of attributes: lightness, openness, tenderness, innocence, vulnerability. These words describe by turns not only the paintings but Owens’s attitude toward painting (and, perhaps, Owens herself, gendered and suggestive of youth as they are). The question of attitude has been a particularly important one for criticism and for painting recently, and maybe a critic’s weak phenomenology is a way of getting at it. When it’s no longer clear how to link one painting practice to another or how to summon a history of painting, the attitude a painter takes toward his or her practice (as métier, tradition, compendium, or catalogue) and the attitude a painting takes toward its being seen have particular importance. The visual and temporal permeability that Owens’s paintings propose, the collaborative openness of both painting and painter, seems appropriate to the moment and to the question. And that very permeability raises a different question, a historical one posed to the museum about criteria and necessity, its stock-in-trade: Why this painting, rather than another?

“Laura Owens” will be on view at MoCA, Los Angeles, through June 22; travels to the Aspen Art Museum, Aug. 2–Sept. 28; Milwaukee Art Museum, Oct. 18–Jan. 18, 2004; Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, Mar. 4–May 9, 2004.

Howard Singerman is associate professor of art history at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.