Art & Photography / Who, What, Why

The Magic of Laura Owens' Radical Paintings

We trace the genre-defying practice of the Hugo Boss Prize-nominated artist, as a new exhibition of her works goes on display in London

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Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013
Laura Owens, Untitled, 2013Courtesy of Contemporary Art Daily

Who? Laura Owens challenges the traditional codes of what a painting is and should be with her compelling, large-scale works. The artist, who is based in Los Angeles, retains a somewhat unpredictable practice that involves plucking and reappropriating critical references from art history. From the great waves of Hokusai to the swirling, looping gestures of Matisse, Owens’ practice eats it all up and churns it out as something entirely her own.

It was while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design during the early 1990s that she became focused on experimenting with abstraction, undeterred by the concerns of her professors, who collectively implied that the genre’s realms would be best left to her male peers. After receiving her MFA from CalArts, Owens went on to become one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2003, at the tender age of 33 – her wry wit and ability to shape-shift between the figurative and the abstract securing her a place at the top table.

In 2013, inspired by her radical approach to the exhibition-making process, she co-founded a gallery called 356 S. Mission Road in L.A., alongside Gavin Brown and Wendy Yao of the bookshop and publishing outfit Oooga Booga Store. The space was inaugurated by a show of her own paintings and has since hosted exhibitions by creative luminaries such as Alex Katz and Larry Sultan.

What? Utilising a cacophony of colour, Owens’ works form a tapestry of tropes and techniques. Wavy gestural strokes of saturated shades bleed into areas of pared-back grids and lines. “She’s like a Dr. Frankenstein”, MoMA curator Laura Hoptman once said. “She takes bodies from other pieces of work and puts them together to create a whole new monster”. With a chaotic energy that bursts through the surface of the canvas, it’s undeniable that Owens has honed a unique brand of eclecticism. Each new painting offers her the chance to explore the expressive potential of the medium from scratch. 

Unconfined by any one approach or theme, Owens’ paintings will often surface from an object or a moment she happens across in daily life. Be it a rudimentary stencil or a slice of text, a tennis racket or a teapot, the catalyst can present itself anywhere, and make its way back into the artwork in any number of ways. Sometimes this is presented as a subtle nuance, while at other times an item itself may be brazenly, physically affixed to the canvas.  

Why? An extensive series of works from Owens’ vivid oeuvre are on display at Sadie Coles gallery in London's Kingly Street until mid-December. “When you look at these objects, do you think they are looking at you? Don’t you think they are human too?”, she implores, in a pre-recorded voice message that accompanies the show. Long describing her paintings as porous, Owens hopes that the viewers’ experience of them will be a visceral, bodily one that falls far beyond the confines of the canvas. The exhibition comes soon after Owens’ nomination for the 2016 edition of the Hugo Boss Prize. The prestigious biennial award, which is administered by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and continues to honour those who are redefining contemporary art as we know it. 

Laura Owens' eponymous exhibit runs until December 15, 2016 at Sadie Coles gallery on Kingly Street, London. 

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