Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Laura Owens Essay

Laura Owens was born in the mid-west (Euclid, Ohio) and studied first in Rhode Island and Maine, before moving in 1994 to the California Institute of the Arts, at Valencia. She has been based in California for more than a decade and it must be said that the environs of Los Angeles seem like a natural habitat for the styles and concerns of her work. It is precisely because California is an artificial landscape, an oasis constructed out of a desert, importing trees and plants from all over the world to create an eclectic terra-formed background to its iconic suburbs, that it accommodates so readily the scope of Owens's work. Many of her paintings use landscape elements as a major part of their subject matter, but in a breezily oneiric manner. They reflect certain aspects of the familiar world, but at the same time offer blueprints for an entirely imaginary one. This is not a distortion but an accentuation of a southern Californian reality in which every view out of the window is a reminder of invented geographies and of uncontrolled climate experiments. Characteristic works such as 'Untitled, 2002', which collates freely examples of the 'wrong' fauna and flora (bears, monkeys, owls, rabbits, squirrels, tortoises, bare trees and blossoming flowers), amount to a denial of the western tradition of landscape painting, which is closely allied to the projects of taxonomy, mapping, measurement: all forms of laying claim to territory through the medium of precise knowledge. The essential subject matter of this tradition is natura naturata, nature recast by man's desires: a California of the mind. Owens's paintings abandon this schedule and these desires altogether, clearly preferring the possibilities inherent in the concept of natura naturans, the concept of a nature still unfinished and developing creatively, in a way that is unpredictable and beyond man's control. This Edenic alternative, while seeming to reflect a West Coast hybridity, actually subverts the conditions of landscape design in a celebration of non-human forms of coexistence. Owens's transformation of the idea of the Fall, of a natural history guided by human history, is suggested in a very recent painting , 'Untitled, 2006', in which an Edenic couple do not reconfigure the world around them through sexual knowledge, but are absorbed into it as much as they are absorbed in each other. The iconography of this lavish tableau is tellingly borrowed from Hindu traditions of representation, from a culture that thinks in terms of a common purpose for humanity and nature. Owens's quirky pastorals have a characteristic legerity and a seemingly inadvertent disrespect for evolutionary logic, but their diverting quaintness is actually fuelled by a very serious interest in principles of deregulation and of insubordination.
If the city of Los Angeles is remarkable for having pioneered the destruction of public space in the process of serving the security interests of corporations and middle class residents, this is precisely the kind of encroachment on the possibilities of interaction, and on the opportunities for free play, that Owens's work might have been designed to flout and undermine. According to Mike Davis, in his classic analysis, City of Quartz (1990), post-war development in Los Angeles has been geared progressively towards eliminating the possibilities of mixing classes and ethnicities, through the creation of gated communities, fortified institutions and panoptical shopping malls. This privatization of public space has been matched by the safeguarding of electronic space in ever more sophisticated provision of passwords, firewalls, virus detectors, etc. Revealingly, it is the totalizing system of the internet that Owens would like to break apart and cannibalize in her characterization of American social politics. In a remarkably explicit essay, 'A Painter's Vote', published in Art US in 2004, she makes clear the degree of her political activism, emphasizing her vehement opposition to the imperial politics of Rumsfeld and Cheney, and nailing her colours to the mast of what she describes as Howard Dean's 'bottom-up organizational structure [that] found its partner in the inherently DIY, rhizomatic, social structure that is the internet.' The connection with her painting that is inherent in this overt commitment to micropolitics lies in the essential porousness of her imagery and stylistic repertoire. Laying aside the usual array of cultural markers by means of which artistic identity is determined by geographical and historical means, Owens provides a calculated disarray of motifs and techniques, quite deliberately mixing a variety of the 'wrong' art traditions: non-western, non-urban, ethnically diverse. This systematic browsing among mutually estranged traditions should not be confused with a postmodernist form of bricolage, where the experience of difference is replaced by the commodifying of cultures whose distinctiveness is subsumed in their equal availability for consumption. Owens's allusion to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome indicates her approval of non-proprietorial, non-hierarchizing forms of attention, of an attitude towards multiplicity that sees it as the fundamentally animating principle of an art that could offer resistance to contemporary forms of social control.
The mixing of styles and motifs is not limited to ethnic and geographical assortment, but is equally insistent on transgressing boundaries between 'high' and 'low' culture; much of the vitality of Owens's work comes from its fascination with the colloquial registers of folk art, handicrafts, sign-painting, etc. Of course, it is often very difficult to weigh the meanings of these different elements; but that is an important part of the reason for including them. Individual motifs that might be emblematic in one context, are given another context, or even several, by means of constant juxtaposition with competing claims for the attention. The difficulty, and even the impossibility, of knowing what to focus on, is a carefully cultivated aspect of Owens's aesthetic that is reflected at the level of technique in paintings such as 'Untitled, 1999', where the problem of discrimination (of identifying the cultural source of any given element) is pre-empted by the use of abstract forms. But if the heterogeneousness of canvases like this one seems merely formal, the task of subordinating certain elements to others is still obstructed by the inconsistency of technique, whereby paint is sprayed, washed, spread, brushed, squeezed and inscribed onto the surface of the picture, playing havoc with one's received ideas about how to relate to one another the many different layers of mark-making. The separate incidents in the painting are like objects swimming on the retina; the moment one tries to fix them in view, they change their place in the whole ensemble. The 'molecular' painting 'Untitled, 1998' and the 'numerical' painting 'Untitled, 1999' dramatize a parallel effect, in a more schematic, though elegant, form. Owens destabilizes the figurative elements in her paintings by constantly dislocating the relations between them, instigating a devolutionary campaign against the history of western aesthetics. And she destabilizes the abstract elements in her work through a structural hesitation, leaving us permanently uncertain which parts of the composition are more load-bearing than others.
In her most recent exhibitions, Owens has shown an enthusiasm for using paint to interpret the conventions of other media, such as tapestry, embroidery and printing. Many of these recastings have a surprising anecdotal power. Although she is not a narrative artist--and even when she borrows from narrative art, this is always with a view to producing an extract, or abstract, that contradicts the basis of narrative form--her choice of images often evokes historically specific uses of visual culture for story-telling purposes in what was basically an oral culture. The most obvious example of this would be the 2006 painting of one section from the Bayeux Tapestry. Although there is an element of nostalgia in this recapturing of the scope and appeal of the language of visual representation, accentuated by Owens's magnifying of the dimensions of the work, its chief impact is to restore a sense of the desirability of a community of interpretation that is not exclusive or privileged. Story-telling art assumes or proposes a stock of knowledge and techniques that will both elicit and confirm the communal nature of the world it constructs. Owens's resort to clear and decisive uses of forms of vernacular art suggests a desire to reverse Walter Benjamin's diagnosis of the shift from the position of the story-teller to that of the novelist; the shift from orality to literacy means an expansion in the size of the audience, but equally an atomization of the audience into a host of solitary readers, while the scenario of the story-teller in direct communication with those who listen to the unfolding of the tale, reflects a very similar sense of scale to that of the grass-roots local politics that Owens hopes to see coming alive in the heartland of corporate America. The Bayeux tableau has a strikingly modern freshness and audacity, but is still very distant in cultural historical terms. Much closer in time, and more familiar, are those residual forms of a popular culture dependent on a close and active relationship between artist and audience; many of the recent paintings siphon off images from the visual repertoire of the circus, vaudeville, fairground attractions and theatrical set-painting. These are the scenes of improvisation and intervention, of a carnivalesque potential to cross the boundaries of genre, of decorum, of the imagination's apartheid. Owens's festive comedies of cultural identity have the same iconoclastic scope as the kind of vulgar performance celebrated by Mikhail Bakhtin in his seminal text, The Dialogic Imagination: 'at the same time when poetry was accomplishing the task of cultural, national and political centralization of the verbal-ideological levels, on the lower levels, on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth.'
In some ways this description of Owens's working practices makes her sound like one of Nicolas Bourriaud's 'semionauts', whose artistic endeavours consist of clearing original pathways through a forest of existing signs. Bourriaud's conception of 'postproduction', whereby contemporary art is characterised by the production of new artworks on the basis of work created already by others, has currency at the moment, not least because of its amenability to comparison with ways of using the worldwide web. The contemporary artist operates like a DJ engrossed in sampling and pasting together a range of different recorded sounds, or like the websurfer who devises a series of links through the plethora of data supplied by different search engines. And yet, despite Owens's own attraction towards the idea of blogging her way into the history of art and bookmarking her way out of its conventional sequences and filiations, her handling of paint and collaging of different materials gives her work a texture, a grain, that places it simultaneously in relation to much older traditions of fabrication, and of artisanal craft. In fact, the more her work seems correlative to contemporary theoretical developments, the more she seems to take pleasure in the handling of different materials and in an increasing versatility of technique. There is more than one sense in which her prodigious output makes this artist look like her own workshop. Laura Owens converts the idea of the individual artist into an entire team of her own assistants. The principle of collaboration extends beyond the scanning and revising of pre-existing visual conventions to include active participation in the visual predicates of work already hanging in the spaces where she has exhibited. During her residency in 2000 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, she exploited the Art Nouveau decorative backgrounds to the salon paintings of the same period, while a commission in the same year for The Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh involved triangulating her own work with that of the botanical teaching diagrams of John Hutton Balfour, and the designs of the gardens themselves. This is not so much 'postproduction' as creative interference; even a kind of interpellation that contributes to something already in process while also disturbing it. Owens has the reputation of a rather light-fingered entertainer, but this appreciation of the seductive qualities of her work does not always register its agitpop dimensions, or its subtle but steady tendentiousness.

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