The Radical Paintings of Laura Owens

171030_r30776Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:

Serious but friendly, a woman who rarely jokes but readily laughs, the Los Angeles artist Laura Owens, forty-seven years old, was pleasantly dishevelled in mom attire: shirt, baggy shorts, sneakers, big glasses. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” she said to the children in each of the five classes she spoke to on Career Day, in June, at her nine-year-old daughter Nova’s public elementary school. She accompanied the advice with a PowerPoint slide of herself after falling from a low scaffold and being splattered with blue paint from a pail that had followed her down—a studio mishap, in 2013, that an assistant had paused to snap before helping her up. The next slide showed her paint-smudged face, smiling—no harm. The kids seemed fascinated but perplexed, as well they might have been. An essay could be written on the semantic distinctions, which Owens had just elided, between mistakes and accidents, and between accidents and pratfalls. I recognized one of the turns of mind that characterize Owens’s influential inventions of new things for the old medium of painting to do. I couldn’t match it when a fifth-grade girl asked me, as a drop-in careerist, how to become a writer. I said that she was one already, if she was writing. With a thought to Owens, I added that she should carry a notebook around, so that people would see that she is a writer. Owens has grounded her life, since childhood, on being, and being regarded as, an artist. The Whitney Museum’s description of an upcoming show of her work there as “a midcareer retrospective” seems superfluous for someone who has never not been in midcareer.

The first slide that she had shown the children was of a drawing she said she had made when she was a teen-ager. It will be included in the Whitney show. Dark and smudgy and heavily worked, it depicts a silhouetted figure in a jail cell, reaching forward through the bars, which cast long shadows, toward a dog dangling a key from its mouth. The dog appears uncoöperative. She told me that the image may have come to her in a dream, which she has no wish to analyze. The second slide documented a civic-poster contest that she had won when she was fifteen—promoting a county foster-care program for children—in her home town of Norwalk, Ohio.

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