Laura Owens is a Los Angeles-based chameleon-like, multifaceted painter and installation artist, who uses numerous techniques and ideas from different genres of art and design. Her inspiration comes from gestural painting, color-field abstraction, collage, digital imagery, American folk art, Japanese landscapes, portraits, children’s book illustrations, greeting-cards, wallpaper designs, silk screens, craft, tapestry, mechanical moving objects, and recorded sound.
Owens did her undergraduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her B.A. in 1992. When she was an undergraduate, she was a contrarian who went against the male teachers who pushed variations of Abstract Expressionism onto the male students but not the women. She completed her M.F.A. at California Institute of the Arts in 1994. As a graduate student, one of her teachers discounted painting, but she took “to using house paint and making a lot of big canvases.” From Cal Arts she detoured into installation art and arrived onto the L.A. art scene in the late 1990s with large-scale paintings that combined historical references and painterly techniques.
She currently lives in L.A. in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Owens – along with co-founder of Ooga Booga Bookstore, Wendy Yao – runs ‘356 Mission’ a non-profit gallery and exhibition space. However after five years of operation ‘356 Mission’ had to close in May, 2018 in part because of antigentrification protests which started in 2015.
Owens’s early paintings tended toward whimsy. One of her early works in 1997 was a seascape in which a few glossy stripes of deep blue at the bottom indicated a calm ocean. A couple of v-shaped birds flew across a blue sky where they cast drop shadows in a trompe l’oeil effect. In 2000, Owens made her first paintings of living beings (apart from her 1997 birds). Her subjects included a couple in bed after a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Soon she was painting a range of people and animals.
In 2002, Owens participated in the exhibition “Cavepainting: Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Laura Owens” at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Her work showed her varied techniques as she smeared, stained, stippled, brushed, collaged, and daubed, establishing an inventory of mark- making possibilities on linen. These marks either got turned into recognizable images of plants or animals, or they remained abstract in a studied raw quality. The repertoire of painted marks in her big, untitled canvas was twisted into a blissful Edenic landscape of the imagination as spider monkeys played with butterflies and a night owl hooted at the moon.
In 2003, Owens was the youngest artist to be given a retrospective at LACMA. At this time she gravitated from abstraction toward loosely brushed, fanciful, figurative imagery. At the end of this decade, she turned to a hybridized abstraction where her naive figuration and amusing conceptualism came together.
In 2012, Owens’s exhibition “Pavement Karaoke” consisted of immaculate renderings of gestural brushstrokes again with her drop shadows. Cherry-red paintings, made of resin and pumice, are split by various fractured grids and strong blue, black, and green colors. Little brown clumps are scattered across the surfaces, which are partly composed of classified ads from a 1960s Berkeley newspaper. At this time she also created letter-based paintings on dozens of small square canvases.
Owens’s work has appeared in numerous group exhibitions some of which were in the Whitney Biennial, Tate Modern, Dallas Museum of Art, and Centre Pompidou. In addition to the more than dozen solo exhibitions of her work in Berlin, Bonn, the Netherlands, China, Vienna, London, and Edinburgh she just had a mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum’s downtown location in 2017-2018. This major exhibition of her work, done over the last 20 years, contained her figuration of folk and fantasy paintings, imitations of digital image editing, use of digitally printed wallpaper, and incorporation of conversational text elements into her canvases.