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Laura Owens, Untitled, 2015, acrylic, oil, and vinyl paint on linen, powder-coated aluminum strainers, five panels. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

Laura Owens

Whitney Museum of American Art

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2015, acrylic, oil, and vinyl paint on linen, powder-coated aluminum strainers, five panels. Installation view, 2017–18. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

AS THE CULMINATION of Laura Owens’s midcareer retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, her masterful five-canvas frolic Untitled, 2015, stood upright on the otherwise pretty empty eighth floor, topping the exhibition like the bouncy ponytail of a debate-team captain full of ambition and Fruit Roll-Ups. With Untitled’s monumental emblems of store-bought cuteness, Owens pulled viewers into surprisingly heavy semiotic traffic, first by playing with categories of the literal and the virtual: She heaped up some brushstrokes in thick dollops of paint, and rendered others as cartoonish, drop-shadowed swaths of erasure, like trails left by a giant fingertip dragged across a foggy window. Owens pulled the horizontal domain of written language into the upright domain of pictorial imagery, too: Fragments of a short story written in a grade schooler’s sans serif appeared against

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