Laura Owens



Not on display

Laura Owens born 1970
Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic resin, fabric and pumice on canvas
Support: 2745 × 2134 × 41 mm
Presented by Sadie Coles Gallery 2015


Untitled 2012 is a large mixed media painting by American artist Laura Owens from Pavement Karaoke, a series of seven large-scale works shown at Sadie Coles gallery in London in October 2012. The paintings were made and shown together but conceived as independent works, and this is the sixth of the seven, all of which are untitled. In the work Owens brings together several disparate elements and materials. Large outlines of the letters R A O (from the word karaoke) are filled in with silkscreen prints derived from classified adverts from a Bay Area newspaper from the late 1960s. Sections of pink gingham cloth are also collaged onto the canvas with other brighter orange and blue grids and lattices painted on top and underneath. An expanse of deep blue paint speckled with lighter shades of blue, pink and green is laid over the surface. This thick impasto, which appears in an irregular, scrawled configuration along with the other curved gestural shapes, contrasts with the linearity of the text and grids. The curved areas are made by ‘drawing’ and ‘erasing’ with a mouse on a computer using a Photoshop painting program. Owens creates a composition on a screen, projects it onto the canvas, marks the outlines with masking tape and then fills in the areas with the impasto paint. At the bottom of the canvas, there is a scattering of glued-on pumice stones. The title is based on Owens imagining the incongruity of people singing songs by the American indie band Pavement at a karaoke bar.

The Pavement Karaoke exhibition followed a presentation of Owens’s work at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2011 and marked a shift in her practice to a more aggressive kind of painting. In 2014 she talked about this new phase of her work in an interview, explaining: ‘I really want paintings to be problems … The painting is coming out at you and asking you to put these things together. Why is this painted on newspaper-like ground? Why is everything so disparate? … What interests me in painting is that it comes out into the room, almost punches you in the face.’ (Owens in Stephen Berens and Jan Tumlir, ‘Still Lifing: Conversation with Laura Owens’, X-TRA, vol.16, no.2, Winter 2014,, accessed 18 January 2016.)

Owens’s desire to make ‘disparate’ paintings dates back to her studies with Michael Asher at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, in 1994. Under his tutelage Owens was introduced to an approach to art in which each element of a work had to be justified; rejecting this (and influenced by the other Los Angelean contemporaries such as Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon and Jason Rhoades), she determined to make paintings where incongruous elements would meet on the same panel. In this work the viewer has to confront a range of materials (pumice, silkscreen, paint, collage) and references (the music of the band Pavement referred to in the title, gestural painting, classified adverts) that do not necessarily sit easily together.

Owens is interested in creating a complex physical experience for the viewer. In works like Untitled, the viewer has to move away from and closer to the object to take in the entire composition and its component parts: to read, for instance, the large letters R A O and the smaller text of the silkscreen advertisements. He or she is confronted with differences between the thick peaks of paint and the flatness of the grids and lattices. This complex approach to the physical surface of the work is further complicated by Owens’s use of computer painting programs. For instance the addition of ‘drop shadows’ – a visual effect that gives the impression of depth – beneath the sections of impasto confuse the real and the artificial. Owens’s concern is to find ways for painting to respond to the changes in habits of perception initiated by technological shifts. The ubiquity of screens in daily life accustoms viewers to seeing different planes of information (or windows) on flat surfaces. Knowing that painting cannot ignore digital culture, Owens uses digital and analogue processes together in making her paintings, creating complex experiences in which viewers must engage with both illusion and materiality. This aspect of her work connects her to artists such as Charline von Heyl and Tomma Abts, who have also used illusion, planes and material shifts as part of a project of making painting stand up to a digitally mediated world.

In the Pavement Karaoke series Owens also explores new ideas about gesture: whereas gestural painting was often understood as expressive, particularly in the discourses around art informel and abstract expressionism, Owens’s gestures cannot be read as indexes of her mood or personality. In this painting some gestures are made with a mouse on a computer and transferred onto canvas, while others are made by filling in taped areas of the ground by hand. Owens not only challenges historical understandings of gesture, mood and immediacy, but has also offered new thinking on the subject. Speaking about this series in a 2013 interview in Artforum she asked: ‘is it even possible for a woman artist to be the one who marks?’ She went on to contrast the male ejaculation, which is locatable and identifiable (since DNA in sperm can be traced back to the producer), to the female orgasm, which has ‘no use [in terms of reproduction], no mark, no locatability’. (Quoted in Lehrer-Graiwer 2013, p.236.) Knowing that the abstract expressionist gesture has sometimes been compared to the male ejaculation, Owens wondered whether the female orgasm could be ‘the model for [a] new gesture’, one that is both hard to locate spatially and not identifiable as assignable to a particular author. (Quoted in Lehrer-Graiwer 2013, p.236.) Her ambition in the paintings was to make emphatically gestural works, while at the same time making gestures that are no longer associated with the personal touch of ‘Laura Owens’ herself.

Further reading
Beatrix Ruf (ed.), Laura Owens, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Zürich, Zürich, and Camden Arts Centre, London 2006.
Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, ‘Optical Drive: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer Talks with Laura Owens’, Artforum, March 2013, pp.231–9.
Mark Godfrey, ‘Statements of Intent: The Art of Jacqueline Humphries, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman and Charlene von Heyl’, Artforum, May 2014, pp.294–303.

Mark Godfrey
December 2014

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Display caption

Untitled is part of a series titled Pavement Karaoke. These giant letters of these words were spelled out across seven canvases in areas made up of silkscreens derived from classified adverts. Owens then used Photoshop to make a virtual painting comprising a series of ‘strokes’ and ‘erasures’, and projected this onto canvas, taping around the edges, and filling in the areas with thick impasto strokes. Fake drop-shadows beneath these areas create illusions of depth. These real and mediated gestures are combined with grids, some reminiscent of modernist painting, others made with gingham cloths.

Gallery label, July 2015

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