An Interview with Laura Owens

In today’s age of art, when many young creators grapple with the challenges of veneration and the legacy of previous accomplishments, Laura Owens, a painter based in Los Angeles, appears to have circumvented the art historical impediments on the ground.

Owens avails herself of a variety of resources—from the Color Field, Op Art, and Pattern and Decoration movements of modernism, to European painters like Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec, to anonymous mediums such as textiles and embroidery.

References from art history and any kind of imagery, be it exalted or mundane, that Owens chooses to incorporate are taken on with finesse and an incisive sense of unpretentious entitlement, all in the pursuit of a larger objective: her own exacting vision for what makes a painting enjoyable to behold.

Despite her exactitude, she is highly adaptable, and her works range from abstraction to figuration to whimsical natural landscapes where animals mingle in an environment that hints at the ridiculous (a primate extends a hand in playfulness to a butterfly, an owl claims a segment of moonlit sky against a backdrop of azure heavens and voluminous cumulus clouds).

Owens’s flowers—luxuriant and venomous-looking, or modest and pallid—are not bound by any botanical precision. She strikes a balance between remarkable paint-handling and a calculated naivete in technical execution.

Or she can go for sheer virtuoso, such as in her masterful figurative representation of a romantic embrace (Untitled, 2003), which has the muted brilliance of a silent film frame, as if the kissing couple were drifting in a prismatic soap bubble.

Since her graduation from CalArts in the mid-nineties, Owens has experienced immense success, the highlight of which is her current mid-career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Although she is only thirty-two, some have criticized her for the feel-good quality in her work, which could be seen as a problem if it were shallow or overly cute. However, one painting in her Moca show reveals a darker side.

It is a large-scale desert scene with machete-wielding men in ten-gallon hats and pentagram-adorned pullovers, and an oppressive sky radiating putty and greenish-gray hues.

Upon seeing it, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, in part because of the contrast between the playfulness of Owens’s desertscape and the darkness of the reference.

Owens, who had been up for three days finishing the painting, was standing next to me and pointed out that the men in pentagram shirts were meant to represent Bush and his pals.

At the bottom of the painting, there is a lone hand emerging from an earthmound. She stated matter-of-factly, “That’s doom and destruction.”

The interview was conducted in Owens’ painting studio, located in Eagle Rock, a neighborhood of Los Angeles to the northeast. Two storefronts have been combined to form the studio.

— Rachel Kushner

The words of this author evoke a strong response from many who hear them. Her words have the power to motivate and inspire, often leaving a lasting impression on those who take the time to listen.

I’m interested to know what inspired your artwork featuring bats. Is it simply a creative choice or are these characters meaningful to you in some way?

LAURA OWENS: Recently, I was accused of only having benevolent elements in my work, and I wanted to add something less benevolent, so I included bats. Depending on the culture, they can hold different meanings, not always negative.

In Chinese embroidery, they are not the menacing black bats, but are instead seen as auspicious. However, in the Tiepolo painting at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, they represent ignorance in the triumph of virtue and nobility.

It is said that BLVR are blind.

A: Thus, these elements were added to the work with the initial assumption that they might be seen as something sinister, however I understand them to be entirely beneficent. It is kind of like a secret joke to myself.

Q: Gothic symbols are served by these creatures, however, unbeknownst to you, they don’t appear so sinister. Have you ever witnessed one slumbering? Surprisingly, they look quite beguiling when they are just suspended upside down.

When I visited my sister in Austin, Texas, I had the chance to observe an incredible event – a massive exodus of bats from a bridge at dusk. I had never seen so many at once, and the bats continued to pour out in streams of hundreds for a good half hour. It was an amazing sight to behold.

Q: Your observation of the bats being subtly kind sparks my next inquiry. I consider your canvases to be more like treasure chests instead of containers, so I ask: Where do the negative emotions go?

To rephrase, do you only present something enjoyable to share, or do you have a system for keeping the artwork cheerful regardless of your personal difficulties and inner discord?

A: In my art-making, I experience a realm of personal freedom. It’s its own unique place, not one that can be related to any emotional state. I don’t enter this space when I’m feeling pain.

It’s where experimentation, invention, and unexpected combinations come alive. While I feel the word “freedom” may be inadequate to describe it, I want to emphasize its importance.

When viewing my own work, I don’t perceive an emotional charge, but rather a sensation of the creative process and its connecting pathways.

I would concur that creativity is definitely one of the components of the treasure chest that I mentioned, but it is a gratifying one. You are not attempting to craft original ways to portray severed heads.

A: A painting of a deceased horse lying in a woodland is something I’m pondering… Displaying such a scene is not something I would normally do. However, if I did, I would likely give it an optimistic interpretation–a sense of acknowledgment of whatever has occurred.

Q: Your work is no longer meant to be a platform for airing out negative sentiments.

A: I’d rather not publicize my feelings of despair, discouragement, and hopelessness since I don’t think they’re particularly captivating. They generally come from being dissed by someone or feeling discouraged about who got elected.

Q: Does the current global tension inspire you to take refuge in your studio, or does it encourage you to keep hiding in your pink-painted bedroom?

A: I’ve been discussing the idea of taking a break from art and focussing on activism with friends. This was my reaction to the current state of affairs.

The last painting I did for the Moca show was a personal response to the situation in the United States, but I don’t expect many people to recognize it as such and that’s okay with me.

Q: Could you elaborate on your approach to painting? I heard you once told a class that when a painting wasn’t going as planned, you discovered that the resolution usually lay in the technique–meaning that there are generally technical solutions to problems, rather than them originating from the content or idea behind the work.

A: In art school, they taught the importance of perseverance and the idea of struggling through the process.

However, I prefer to have a more pragmatic approach to painting. It is a process of trial and error on smaller canvases, experimenting with different materials, and changing the image until it matches my original vision. Usually, it takes me a few attempts until I am satisfied with the result.

Q: You hold on to your idea for the painting and find a way to create it. You don’t abandon your plan or adjust it based on your progress.

Rather than just jumping into it, like many painters do, or working with a pre-established plan, I take an older-school approach to painting.

I rely on sketches and studies, akin to what fresco painters used to do, to get an idea of around three-quarters of the final painting. After that, I’ll look at it and figure out what else I need to do to complete it.

This is a tricky process, as it’s possible to go too far or not go far enough, so I have to be careful to know when to stop.

Q: It was reported in the literature that Rousseau’s tropical scenes were inspired by illustrations in books since he had never been to the jungle himself.

LO mentioned that they had also read the same thing.

Alex Katz had a response to the inquiry of whether his landscape paintings were inspired by art or by nature; he claimed they originated solely from art.

The nature imagery in the artwork of the subject is rooted in a variety of art histories, such as eighteenth-century embroidery, Chinese and Japanese painting, and Rousseau.

Furthermore, it appears that some of the references and meanings in the individual’s representations of nature are more internal and more personal in comparison to Katz’s.

A: Do you think this artwork doesn’t appear to originate from any other art? Or maybe not entirely?

Q: Katz’s words made me think that the painting he was creating was meant to be an homage to art rather than to the natural environment or its inherent qualities and meanings.

On the other hand, I feel that your works of nature have a more personal note to them, going beyond your connection to the art world.

A: I’m hoping they do. Each painting is a combination of influences, which can be anything from a hike to an artwork I saw in a museum or something I sketched. It’s limitless. It could be an artist I’m not familiar with…

I’m fond of noticing small elements of art and turning them into a painting. Instead of looking at the artwork as a whole, I’m taking bits and pieces that resonate with me personally and interpretively.

Not many would see the shadow on someone’s face from a hat and say, “Do you see that!” It’s about perceiving the things that fascinate you, which happens in nature too. I’m looking at the connections between the elements of nature that intrigue me, though the artwork isn’t meant to portray nature.

Q: Is that not the case?

When I reflect on representing the natural world, I envision botanical sketches. All of my artwork is like shorthand or symbols if even that. Many of the animals I paint are hard to identify–maybe a badger, a squirrel, or something else.

My depictions are not necessarily precise, especially compared to those who have observed nature for botanical research, a long-standing practice.

In the Moca show, there is a canvas of lavender, rose pink, and doodles colors with Miroesque lines. In the upper left corner, the signature is inscribed upside down.

I’m wondering if the joke about the subjectiveness of orientation was a method of reducing the supposed grandeur of a large, abstract painting.

When I started the painting, I did not plan to put my signature on it. I had the idea of using a space pen and began to draw all over the canvas. I stained it in several spots, but it still didn’t feel complete.

I was at a point where I had to go with the flow of what was happening and how much more I needed to do. I had an all-over pattern reminiscent of Miro and textile design, which created a nice spatial quality with a lot of the canvas showing, but still, something felt missing.

I thought a figure and a figure-ground relationship was needed, so I decided to sign it upside-down with a tube of paint. This humorous element was that the signature was so far above the head, like a self-portrait.

After the fact, I realized that this removed the grandeur of the painting, but I don’t feel any shame in having paintings be as grandiose and ridiculous as possible.

Q: Your drawings appear to use very varied materials, from Popsicle sticks to used checkbooks, from colored tissue paper to abstract photographs.

However, there always appears to be a clear rationale for your decisions. While these materials can be humorous, they are also necessary for terms of achieving a sense of aesthetic unity.

Is this selection process something you find easy, or do you sometimes find it challenging to decide what to include and whether or not it is successful?

A: When I choose an object to draw, I have an instantaneous reaction of whether it will work. I tend to pick out things that are mundane every day, like those found around my house and studio. I’m not against buying art supplies, but I also like to use what’s readily available.

Often, I select items that can create an optical illusion when rearranged. A collage element is not uncommon to be the spark that leads to the entire drawing.

Q posed the question, “What came to mind when you were presented with a used, empty checkbook?” to which the response was “windmill blade.”

A: I knew there had to be a purpose for me gathering those old checkbooks. At first, I was going to discard them in the recycling bin. Then, I looked more closely and realized they had a unique and pleasing shade of manila.

All of them were laid out in a style similar to De Stijl, with a light blue spine. It didn’t take long for me to arrange them in the shape of a windmill.

The thought hadn’t crossed my mind when I examined the sketch: a combination of windmills and the principles of de Stijl could result in the sense of regional unity!

A: That had not occurred to me either.

Grandma Moses, an artist revered by BLVR, declared that her scenic artistry was inspired in a single moment–when the hubcap on a car on her farm created a fish-eye reflection of the familiar landscape.

Though it may appear as a myth, BLVR still wonders if any moments can be recalled as a formative experience for the painter.

LO’s inspiration to become an artist was based on early impressions about community and the kind of thinking he desired to do. He had a philosophical outlook on his position in the world and what he wanted to do in life, which didn’t include working for a company.

After attending punk rock concerts and meeting other artists in high school, LO felt a sense of freedom and a community he wanted to be a part of. Although he was good at math, pursuing mathematics or engineering was a nightmare to him.

During the artist residency you had at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, did you get to explore the museum when it wasn’t open to the public?

At the museum I visited, there was one of the most notorious art heists of the twentieth century, which I did get to learn about.

Q: That would be the Rembrandt.

The LO described the security of the Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings as being “top of the line” and talked about the unique experience of the flashlight tour.

During the tour, the observer had the chance to take in the details of the hodgepodge of artworks and the juxtapositions of objects, something that couldn’t be done in the daylight.

One of the more peculiar discoveries was a jade figurine of a person lying flat at the back of a glass case of silver from around the world.

Even people who had worked at the museum for years hadn’t noticed it, showing how the flashlight tour was much more effective for picking up on the nuances of the museum.

When I showed up for my residency, longtime employees there revealed immediately that they had yet to observe all the details and contrasts that Gardner crafted in her museum.

It is remarkable–this woman is a collector, curator of the twentieth century, and a creator of installations. It’s astonishing to consider all the freedoms she took with the artwork, making it her own using her arrangements.

If you are a perfectionist, you would question, “How could you have this Titian hung above the–” I can’t remember what kind of fabric she had draping the wall underneath it–and then the chest and then the vase and it’s all…

Q: Intermingling.

A: Indeed, the concept of co-mingling is frowned upon by traditionalists, who prefer to focus on cultural and historical separations. Quite often, Gardner would organize the objects in a room so that the individual portraits appear to be gazing upon each other.

Many have stories about whom each portrait represents – be it her dead son, late husband, or even herself – and these people seem to view each other in either admiration or dismay, as the case may be.

I must admit that Gardner’s works have served as an inspiration for a few of my paintings.

Q: Your artwork featuring two monkeys gazing at each other on separate large canvases is something that comes to mind.

You and Edgar Bryan also created a pair of paintings that depict you both in a self-portrait, conversing with each other on the phone. This was before your Gardner residency and would be seen as another type of ‘gaze and gaze back’ relationship.

A: As I had established before, Edgar and I created self-portraits with a more metaphorical gaze. We hung the paintings in front of each other, yet our eyes didn’t connect.

I believe the Gardner experience inspired the painting I made around two years later, which was the painting with the most animals in it. I wanted the painting to be full of animals that were looking at each other, their gazes coming through the painting from left to right.

BLVR: It appears to be a common difficulty for many creatives to comprehend the legacy of modern art and the monumental achievements of figures such as Smithson and the Minimalists.

This seems to affect males mainly. However, you have a knack for assimilating past elements without getting overwhelmed or hindered by them. Would you attribute this to a womanly point of view–a female inclination towards equality and tact?

I realize I am presuming the first part of the inquiry to set up the second. Let’s start with the first part concerning the rank of the past.

A: When I heard your query, I was instantly reminded of the occurrence when someone is viewed as greater than oneself. If there are heroes, those on a higher pedestal, then there must be some who are not as elevated.

Therefore, I strive to look at everyone as an equal. For example, when I take in a van Gogh painting, I try to remind myself that a real person, with all the same issues as anyone else, created it. Not an unattainable, unapproachable deity.

Q: Issues, small worries, and mistakes…

A: Yes. It seems to me that many people have a tendency to think they are better than a certain group of people, and there is a hierarchy in place.

What I believe is essential to painting, which has been considered to be a form of ‘fine art’ for a long time, is for it to broaden itself to include other cultures and works that may not be immediately recognizable as paintings.

Incorporating textiles from Peru or India in a painting does not take away from the original context of the material. Rather, all elements can be mixed and be just as influential as, say, a Mondrian. Does that make sense?

Q: Does it have that effect? Would it be the type of democratic pillaging that would make painting less daunting and give less esteem to past triumphs?

A: The hierarchy of art is formed by the values attributed to certain works. This does not adequately represent the practice of painting, and anyone interested in the art form may not be looking at it from the same perspective.

Meaning transcends the hierarchy, and one can draw influence from a Valentine collage from the 1800s just as much as from a sculpture from Greece.

Q: My apologies for the broad assumption, but I truly think that it’s more common among women to take a wider outlook on stuff, rather than regarding the practice as a revived heroic act or the likes, compared to the Old Masters.

A: Considering what I’m going to be analyzing and incorporating, I aim to include a great deal of anonymous female artists. Usually, a majority of textile art is crafted by women, and in most cases, most works that aren’t mainstream are made by women.

Q: Indeed, when examining the works of the Old masters up through the Minimalists, most artists are male.

A: The majority of those in the art world are men, but my particular interests are reflected in my understanding of two-dimensional art. For them to remain pertinent, I think many male artists need to adopt the same outlook.

The culture has become more diversified and open-minded recently, leading to more people looking to alternative sources for guidance and inspiration rather than just mainstream art history.

Which of your peers stands out to you?

Chris Ofili is someone who is creating his own set of standards, but that is something that is necessary nowadays. Without it, the gravity of art history can become overwhelming, bringing a stuffy, traditional atmosphere.

One can appreciate the immense longevity of these paintings, but they are still on the same level as folk art that I observe and appreciate.

Q: When you were a youngster in Ohio, what was it like to have a job at a landfill?

Q: Although I had previously expressed my reluctance to work for the man, I found that I rather enjoyed the city-provided landfill service. I was fond of the generous breaks and the strict, regimented way of life that came with the job.

Furthermore, I was particularly fond of the bureaucratic system with a clear set of rules defining right and wrong. All of this was highly structured and regulated.

Laura that is rather risqué!

A: It was a great job for a seventeen-year-old since I had to understand a certain amount of knowledge for weighing trucks. There were certain regulations, such as having a tarp over the truck bed upon arrival at the landfill.

As an employee, I had the authority to inform people logically and without emotion that they were required to cover their trucks if they wanted to dump their trash. People would often become frustrated and ask if they had to drive away and return with the tarp.

To which I would answer in the affirmative, it was the law. I found it quite appealing.

Q: You had a robotic, administrative manner!

A: During my time as a bureaucrat, it was nice to have such well-defined regulations. What I appreciated the most was that the landfill provided a context for different cultures to interact.

There were Amish individuals, middle-class citizens, and city/BFI personnel. It was fascinating to observe the contents of the garbage. The landfill also attracted some unusual people who do not usually exist in urban environments.

Three brothers visited the landfill frequently. Two of them did not talk, while the third wasn’t allowed in the truck’s cab.

Q: Did he have to be seated in the vehicle’s rear?

A: He clung to the side of the truck, fully loaded with brooms, rakes, and other paraphernalia on the outside. Daily, he would spot the same two brothers multiple times. This was in a town that had a population of fifteen thousand.

Q asked which town this was.

I spent my childhood in Norwalk, Ohio, where I hail from.

Q: I pondered if the landfill caused you to comprehend on a larger scale what is reclaimable on the planet and what must be placed in the ground.

A: People would sometimes come to the landfill with usable items like bicycles, which had been discarded due to either carelessness or lack of knowledge of what to do with it. On those occasions, I would attempt to sell the item.

However, I soon realized I couldn’t do this too often, as the landfill was not a charity. What was truly astonishing was the amount of food thrown away due to small discrepancies in the recipe, such as too much or too little salt, by places like Pepperidge Farm when they had a cookie factory in the area.

Q: Hold on a second…I thought they created those objects in Maine.

A: That’s just the advertisement. The maintenance worker would arrive, and–it wasn’t enjoyable–the back of his blue truck was full of piles and piles of these cookie bags–a whole shipment that had to be disposed of. Therefore, the other staff and I took small bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies from the rear of the van…

Q: Indulging in cookies that have too much salt.

A: I couldn’t discern any difference between them; they had slight defects in some way.

I was reading something recently, and in it, you mentioned the artwork of Larry Poons. Did you happen to know that he is now a motorcycle racer?

Nope, not a chance.

In the motorcycle world, Poons is widely known as a racer. One day, it was discovered that he was also a painter, considered an absurd piece of information. All the guys in their racing leathers had a good laugh about it and couldn’t believe it when they heard the news.

No one knew that he was an artist who worked with abstract painting.

Q: It was something they had not anticipated. To them, it was an unlikely, arbitrary event. The man was known for being a daredevil in the racing field–with his gray hair dyed green and his affinity for classic motorbikes.

Everyone found it quite amusing as if they had discovered a heavyweight boxer who crafted ships in bottles or played in amateur Scrabble tournaments.

A: That’s unbelievable!

Q: If, similar to Poons and his hidden racing career, you opted to begin a distinct, clandestine job aside from painting, what would it be?

A: I’ve made up my mind, but I’m unsure if I should voice it. Alright, here it is: I’ve decided that I would like to become a nun.

Q: Are you serious?

Growing up Catholic, though no longer a practitioner, something that comes to my mind is living a hermit-like life in the outdoors. A sort of cloistered existence while aiding the poor is an intriguing idea.

Q: How intriguing. Would you be willing to forgo romantic love if it meant living that kind of lifestyle?

A: To be clear, I wouldn’t want to abandon my current relationship; however, if that didn’t work out, I could see myself becoming a celibate, living in an ashram or a similar setting, and dedicating my life to something spiritual.

Have you ever had this thought before?

A: Since I was a young child, I have been pondering this kind of life for myself. Recently, I heard about a woman who got a divorce when she was in middle age. Instead of continuing with her life in Beverly Hills, she became a nun and resided in a cellblock in prison in Tijuana.

Her role involves counseling, teaching inmates how to read, helping them write letters to their families, and providing them with medicines, eyewear, dentures, and bail. Additionally, she established her non-profit organization to provide the prisoners with those things.

Q: Was her life drawing you in when you read about her?

A: It had some kind of effect. The notion that you can have a different life when you’re already in your fifties or sixties was quite appealing. Becoming a midwife would also be a joy since I thoroughly enjoy witnessing babies come into the world.

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