Capitain Petzel Gallery, Berlin | May 1 – July 31, 2015
“Isn’t it interesting,” said Laura Owens in a 2013 interview, “that a male orgasm has a DNA imprint that will replicate itself over and over again […] but the female orgasm has no use, no mark, no locatability?” The idea was that the traditions of AbEx and Action Painting revolve around the ejaculatory motif: the primal spurt of paint that plants itself everywhere it turns. For the female orgasm, Owens wondered if it could be “the model for a new gesture.” Such a gesture would invert the male artist’s indiscriminate splatter, forfeiting a recognizable “mark” while remaining equally promiscuous, such that it let everything in.
In absence of a signature style, Owens’s work over the last 20 years has been characterized by a gleeful appropriation of styles, subjects, and techniques, many of which have been devalued as decorative or relegated to kitsch. She began in the mid-’90s painting large color-field abstractions combined with figurative icons to an effect described in Artforum as “a surprising blend of mid-century formalism and Pop mischievousness.” By 2003, the year of her retrospective at MOCA, her paintings expanded to include Post-Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, as well as images of furry monkeys, 18th-century embroidery, Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, and mattress prints from the ’70s. It was a fashionable blend of the high and the low, though few of her contemporaries were as expansive and indiscriminate as she was, and none were as enthusiastic.
Though monkeys and mattresses are largely absent in this show of Owens’s recent work, gleefulness still remains central to her canvases. Among the five free-standing panels on display on the ground floor, and the smaller painting hung in the lower level, are pixelated drawings of dolphins, goops of Day-Glo paints, and neon licorice sticks that look drawn with a MacBook trackpad. On one side of the five panels is a wide-ruled spelling book, blown up to magnificent proportions and printed onto the canvas. Written across the five panels is a story about a cat and an alien that teleport to the center of the earth and blow it up into a “pizza crust.”
Not that this says anything about the actual paintings. The story, in its meaningless nonsense, deflects the urge for an interpretive framework. No statements are to be found here, no stylistic or conceptual assertions. Instead, one encounters a sort of art-historical Garden of Eden, where oils lie beside inkjet printers, absent of any power struggle or aesthetic dialectic from which a deep affirmation of painting is won. Such would imply progress, and Owens’s work is decisively flat, both temporally and hierarchically, bred from a general criticality towards Modernist notions of the epiphany.
Owens’s paintings demand a surrender of critical discernment that lets in cats and aliens and pink unicorns to the party. While the childish aesthetic presents a refreshing antidote to the self-serious Schnabels of the world, it expresses an infantilized position and a lack of criticality that could be primed to take in potentially corrupted forms.
Photoshop art is a lot of people’s idea of a corrupted form. In the five large paintings, Owens uses Photoshop to render impasto brushstrokes: a parody of the paint software’s attempt to recreate AbEx effects. On the opposite side of the panels are what appear to be colored cards with shapes of animals and candy wrappers cut out, digitally rendered and blown up to pixelated sizes. They recall Matisse or Kline, except enlarged and badly rendered, emphasizing their staleness. There’s a Warholian prank to be found in the copy of the copy, which allows Owens to address and subvert a tradition that’s both exhausted and predominantly male. Sure, there are occasional goops of oil paint splotches, but they aren’t more satisfying, or any less cliché.
By making her Photoshop use so ostentatiously visible, Owens reaches into a tradition, embedded both in AbEx and Impressionism, of painting-as-document of its own making. Of her process, Owens said in an interview, “I take pictures of the paintings that I’m working on and bring them back in the computer to paint on top. I use a digital projector to project my painting on the canvas so that I can think about it.”
Visible in Owens’s five paintings are all stages of their creation. As Thierry de Duve argued in Artforum last year, Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herb” combined finished techniques with sketchy brushstrokes associated with preliminary outlines. By doing so, he effectively documented the history and future of painting. To conceive of a similar project today, the very techniques of painting would need to fundamentally evolve, and they’ve remained fairly static before the digital age. If Owens is setting out for a similar exploration—and she has every right and ability to do so—her groundbreaking discoveries embody a reverent and critical tradition of abstract painting, while pointing to exhilarating new possibilities in a digital age. Owens’s results are less pleasing to look at than Manet’s. But again, that’s not a good or bad thing. It’s something to be accepted.