Laura Owens, Untitled, 2015, oil, Flashe paint, acrylic, silkscreen inks, and gesso on linen, five panels, each 108 × 84". Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2015, oil, Flashe paint, acrylic, silkscreen inks, and gesso on linen, five panels, each 108 × 84". Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Laura Owens

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2015, oil, Flashe paint, acrylic, silkscreen inks, and gesso on linen, five panels, each 108 × 84". Photo: Jens Ziehe.

The five freestanding canvases that make up Laura Owens’s Untitled, 2015, were arranged in a diagonally angled row, like a scaled-down painterly cousin of Richard Serra’s Promenade, 2008, or a scaled-up line of ready-to-fall dominoes. This setup encourages viewers to walk around and among them, inspecting their lively versos. Still, there is only one technically correct viewpoint. Look down the sequence from its head, fine-tune your position by shuffling your feet, and the visible overlapping fragments of text printed on the frontages—texts whose point size grows as the paintings recede, compensating for distance and suggesting, together, a single flat plane—suddenly snap into readability, if not profundity: THERE WAS A CAT AND AN ALIEN. THEY WENT TO ANTARTICA [sic]. THEN THEY TELEPORTED TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. THERE THEY GOT 11,000000 BOMBS AND BLEW THEM UP AND TURNED EARTH
—it cuts off. The punch line is elsewhere. Payoffs, so suggests the deeply smart state-of-painting proposal that Owens has concocted here, don’t derive from standing still. The correct position is no fixed position at all.

Her writing, stenciled, sits on horizontal lines that recall a child’s exercise book. If you’re standing at the far end, these become more numerous, stylistically varied, and primary-colored in inverse relation to the paintings’ nearness. Move instinctively toward blooming color, inspect the canvases closely, and they open up and complicate, revealing themselves as admixtures of application. The texts mingle with digitally printed, abstract, black-and-white imagery that suggests a drop-shadowed map of coastline, or perhaps melting Antarctic sea ice, land gone fungible. Combined with a wavering trellis of gray that weaves across the surfaces, the shadowing underlines the work’s generalized seesawing between flatness and depth. Both of these, in Owens’s gaming, can be illusory. What look like Easter eggs appear: lustrously fat splotches of vivid and pungent paint, some of them—ha-ha—digitally drop-shadowed too. The final canvas is a melee of registrations: hand-applied paint, stenciled text, digitally printed lattices, and emoji (flowers, sun behind clouds).

Owens was equally busy on the backs of the paintings, where fanned-out arrangements of blocky, pixelated forms—if you squint, they look like stencils of some sort of animal, perhaps horses, dolphins, or tortoises—spread across the brown linen. Encountering these and more emoji (blueberries, licorice, cinnamon bun) was like gobbling power treats in a video game: a little infantilizing. And pleasurable. Near the stairs to the basement, in a corner of an unlovely, low-ceilinged, carpeted room, was one more canvas, smaller, traditionally hung: a splashy, giddy, jolie-laide pastiche of Mediterranean modernism, depicting a strewn desk. On it, alongside a book, a basket, and two hovering disembodied eyes, was what—judging from all the parti-color lines—would be the last page of what began upstairs. Its scribbled text, completing Owens’s sentence, read: . . . INTO A PIZZA CRUST.

If disappointment tinged the absurdist comedy, it was site-specific: traditional painting exiled to the basement, while work that absorbs and refracts the digital flourished upstairs. Yet Owens, in offering her audience the “flat” experience of reading that comes when her sentences anticlimactically line up, has also inveigled them into physical space, into the sensual physicality of paint, into a polemic that never feels like a lecture. Yes, painting must adapt to survive, the alternative being that lonely basement ghetto. At the same time, she suggests—contra many other painters who interface with our latter-day condition—it might profit from being less screenlike, more sculptural. The crucial takeaway, though, is the mood of enablement. In Owens’s hands, this median position looks less like catch-up than like a field of opportunities—for looting, needling, mongrelizing, cavorting. The old paradigm? Pizza crust, she said.

Martin Herbert