If you are strategic or lucky enough to time your arrival at the Whitney’s west-facing gallery to sunset, you will see Laura Owens’s paintings catch fire. The works in this room are from the artist’s luminescent Day-Glo Pavement Karaoke series (2012). They’ve been reproduced numerous times, on magazine covers and in catalogues, where they tend to register as coy archetypes of the self-reflexive turn in painting during the 1990s and early 2000s, in which the canvases themselves seem to ponder their reason for existence, as well as frontrunners of the increasing use of image-editing software by painters. In person, however, the works engulf and embrace without a flicker of reflexive distance. These five untitled 2.7-by-2m canvases invite you in, to observe how their scintillating graphic forms are built up from layer upon layer of flat screenprinted and painted shapes; how several of the matrices that course their massive frames are made from swaths of pasted gingham. Sitting with the paintings at twilight, I was reminded of looking at Dan Flavin’s glowing neon sculptures at a similar hour at Dia Beacon. Yet Owens’s virtuosic works display an altogether different alchemy: they are testaments to the transformational potential of paint.
The Pavement Karaoke series marks Owens’s euphoric reembrace of abstraction at the start of this past decade. The works are positioned immediately following a windowless room devoted, salon-style, to 23 figurative works, which the artist made between 2003 and 2011 and whose subjects are rendered via loose paintwork that’s alternately reminiscent of Elizabeth Peyton and faux-naïve painter Austė. If this formal shift between the contents of one gallery and the next at first feels abrupt, it’s helpful to remember that Owens has been pursuing a line of inquiry into images – how we look at them and the diverse effects of various representational and abstract strategies – for nearly 30 years. While the earliest paintings in this show, made during the mid-1990s, reveal a self-conscious desire to imbue her work with ‘content’ – ‘This is a painting about paintings in a room!’ one imagines Untitled (1997), an interior featuring miniature reproductions of nearby Owens paintings, exclaiming – by the end of the last decade we find the artist tackling her increasingly ambitious compositions with a reserve matching her ample wit.
One of Owens’s savviest formal innovations is her subversion of the ‘build up’ – wherein a composition is initiated via a rudimentary underpainting and accrues detail and complexity as it’s worked up. Instead, her works from the early 2000s onwards are presented on complex grounds with layers that intersect in elaborate choreographies, only to be overlaid with increasingly crude interventions, including the application of gobs of paint and pumice (culminating, in Untitled, 2013, and Untitled, 2014, with the addition of actual bicycle wheels). But this is one invention among many. Indeed, the generosity of these paintings stems from the rigour with which they address the many possibilities of paint itself, without hiding from the viewer the effort behind all this exploration. If the earlier works perhaps protest too much, these masterful, raucous final canvases appear blithely unbothered by the question of the medium’s relevance as they show us, supremely convincingly, the astonishing things paint can do.
Laura Owens, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 10 November – 4 February
From the January & February 2018 issue of ArtReview