Do You Really Want to Go Back in Time? Laura Owens at Transformer Station
Laura Owens (American, b. 1970). Oil, Flashe, and screenprinting ink on linen; 69 x 60 in. Copyright Laura Owens. Courtesy of the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne. Photography by Jason Mandella
On view at Transformer Station February 27 – May 30, Rerun is a homecoming for artist Laura Owens, who was raised in Norwalk, Ohio. In the 1990s, she became an internationally celebrated artist based in Los Angeles. Walking into the Transformer Station’s galleries, one is struck by the bright colors of Owens’s large-scale paintings, which exude a cheerful optimism upon first glance. They are a visual feast for the eyes, much like shelves lined with lollipops and gummi worms in a candy shop. Both nostalgia and references to art history are immediately identifiable in her work, as is the theme of the exhibition, time travel. Curated by Cleveland Museum of Art curator of contemporary art Emily Liebert and local teens in the Museum’s Currently Under Curation program, the exhibition draws from a range of Owens’ work, reaching back to her high school days and including a completely new site-specific installation.
The teen curators (Jamal Carter, Xyhair Davis, Skylar Fleming, Yomi Gonzalez, Joseph Hlavac, Agatha Mathoslah, Arica McKinney, Maya Peroune, and Deonta Steele) each selected works from the CMA’s education collection to exhibit with Owens’ works. Many of the works explore how print has developed over time, including a block print book and needlepoint sampler created by students in the 1920s. In this way, the teen curators threaded history and youth throughout the exhibition. The text-based selections relate to Owens’ use of newspaper classified ads and print making techniques in her paintings. Owens’ took the connections even further by using reproductions of the block printed letters, as well as scans of early wallpaper printing blocks to create a new site-specific immersive installation.
The immediate sensation I had upon entering the show was that it felt fresh. It was like walking into a vaporwave music video with its mix-matched visual elements of history and culture colliding on single canvases. The Pop-like, flashy colors of her thick, cake-frosting paint and use of exaggerated drop shadows emphasize elements of the fine art, print media, and computer paint programs of previous decades. These mashups create a sweet first impression that carry art historical tropes, like Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, oversized Abstract Expressionist paint “strokes”, and ancient Chinese ink paintings. The paintings are both timeless and stuck in time, becoming symbols of when they were created. The only thing missing are samples of Muzak set to soft electronic beats.
In her youth, Owens spent countless hours at the CMA, observing, dissecting, and absorbing works of art. It’s a practice she’s continued to this day. “I got in this mode of saying, ‘You know, I really love this particular 11th century gibbon master painter, maybe I could teach myself how to paint these ink paintings of monkeys and reinvent this sort of image or paintings that I really love in a different way’” (The Modern Art Notes Podcast, Laura Owens, Mark Lamster). Owens’ began to question what a painting is during a time in the 90s and early 2000s when Paul Delaroche’s famous quip “painting is dead” was again a popular motto in art. Her works are paintings about the painting. They are experimental in technique and media, often exaggerated and over the top.
The paintings are beautiful and exceptionally presented. The work has a bubblegum quality that evokes a sense of optimism. And that’s exactly how I felt in the 90s and early 2000s. Optimistic. But for me, good memories are always paired with negative ones. Believing that art shapeshifts over time, Owens commented, “You may see a painting in 1996 and then you see it [again] in 2006 and it’s a totally different painting. It literally didn’t change, but the context of yourself meeting that painting changes,” (The Modern Art Notes Podcast, Laura Owens, Mark Lamster).
As the paintings sat in my head, my thoughts about them changed. I began to realize that they held larger conflicts between artistic ideas and her personal biography. In ARTFORUM’s Artists on Writers | Writers on Artists Laura Owens and Edouard Lous, Owens explains that she felt unliked and misunderstood as a teen. Art became her way to escape, “I felt like I had to get out and it was figuring out how to do it.” She tried to forget the past experiences in her youth, “I still feel like I’m the adolescent. I’m just turning around now and being like, ‘Oh, and that happened.’ I’m just processing some of it.” This is a statement that I, and many others, can relate to.
One of Owens’ paintings in particular speaks to me of remembering, but not wanting to acknowledge, emotions from the past. The Untitled painting from 1995 is not immediately recognizable as a depiction of a floor and a wall of artwork that had been created by friends and family. At first glance it comes across as a non-objective abstraction. Though lines of the hardwood narrow in perspective near the top of the composition in a way that would move they eye upward, they actually lead the eye away from top of the painting. My eyes get trapped in the largest negative space in the lower right corner. I know those artifacts from the past are there, but the painting continually forces me to avert my gaze down onto the floor. The feeling it gave me was one of avoidance. This makes it an oddly unsettling painting, as if you are peering into Owens’ perception of her past.
This is what Rerun does for Owens. It delves into her past–visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art, coming of age in Northeastern Ohio, the urge to leave home–and has laid it bare for us to see. Combining her work with the historic pieces from the museum illustrates the lasting impact the CMA has had on the lives it touches and how we turn to the past, both the good and the bad, to reinvent ourselves. Through the eyes of youth, Rerun questions the idea of curation and what an exhibition is, much like how Owens examines painting. The students in the Currently Under Curation program give a fresh perspective into how exhibitions can help the audience decipher their own identity and history.
Laura Owens: Rerun is on view at the Transformer Station through May 30th.