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>> Conversation: Laura Owens
>> Interview: Markus Schinwald
>> Images of Children from the Deutsche Bank Collection
>> Childlike Strategies

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Friendly Place-Holders
A Conversation with Laura Owens

At first sight, Laura Owens’ fantastic, fairy-tale paintings often have a childish, playful quality. Yet beneath the apparently naive surface lies a profound reflection on the medium. The paintings of the Los Angeles-based artist are complex color compositions that arise in a dialogue with painting history and Modernist tradition. The imaginary worlds give birth to clearly conceived compositions that protest against painterly cliche. Cheryl Kaplan spoke with Owens about friendly animals, knights, and nighttime tours through famous collections.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2004
Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

At first glance, Laura Owens’ paintings and drawings have the whimsy of a happy, fanciful world. Unlike outsider artist Henry Darger, whose work is far more naive in appearance and far darker, Owens uses her delicate sting to weave the viewer through a universe that’s always precarious. A fox or dog may be perched on a branch standing guard, but look again as this decoy signals a larger entrance to the painting.

Both: Laura Owens, Untitled, 2004 (detail)
Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

Owens activates her canvas with such precise and intuitive skill that she quickly unsettles everything that appears calm and organized. Her work, always untitled, appears to reference classic Japanese printmaking, Florine Stettheimer’s paintings, a pioneer of American Modernism that was rediscovered in the nineties, Matisse, color field painters, and the contemporary abstract work of Mary Heilman, but they’re always firmly her own and always quirky. Her paintings and drawings have also incorporated extracts of textiles, a momentary detail of a complex design that might be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Here, intimate portraits of couples embracing or just lying in bed have a lingering tense quality quite unlike the focus of most of her paintings.

In 2002, Owens created an artist-driven exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art called: Cavepainting: Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, and Laura Owens. She has also been featured at the Whitney Biennial and shows regularly in New York at Gavin Brown as well as at major US and international museums. I talked with Laura Owens from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives and works. She’s just given birth to a baby boy (who has a name).

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2004
Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

Cheryl Kaplan: In your painting series Untitled from 2004 there’s a menagerie of forest animals that would do justice to any fairy tale book, or even Disney’s Bambi. Does animation play into the work? The way you see a tree or branch or fox becomes extremely playful.

Laura Owens: I’m really thinking about the space: foreground, middle ground, background, and deep space. The animals are place-holders to move through. I’m interested in the animals because you empathize with them.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2004 (detail)
Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2004
Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

They’re friendly, but neutral. The space they inhabit feels akin to a garden during the times of courtly love. A world that breeds private romance. Your paintings are very fanciful.

I can see how that’s there. The paintings are thought of mathematically, to keep the viewer moving without resting. None of the animals dominate or become the protagonist in the story. They equal out.

You’re talking about a non-hierarchical world, like in classical Japanese woodcuts. Where did you first come across Hokusai ?

I bought a book. I probably got there through looking at Impressionist art and their interest in those Japanese prints. Artists like Van Gogh and other Post-Impressionists. I’m interested in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Matisse paintings in the Barnes Collections. There’s a triptych of three women, three times three.

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