Laura Owens



Not on display

Laura Owens born 1970
Oil paint, vinyl paint and wool on linen
Support: 2754 × 2134 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of the North American Acquisitions Committee, and with funds provided by Alireza Abrishamchi and Komal Shah 2017


Untitled 2016 is a large-scale painting measuring 2743 x 2134 millimetres. The support is linen that the artist had dyed green three years before using it as the ground for this work. Most of the image is silkscreened and Owens used over one hundred screens on the surface. Some parts of the composition are hand-painted to bring out aspects of the imagery. The main motif is an embroidery depicting a four-storey dolls’ house with a tree at its right. This image appears to lie behind fifteen irregularly shaped bulbous patches in different shades of green, most of which are patterned with regular grids. Owens painted drop shadows beneath each of these forms to create the illusion of them being in front of the dolls’ house. Some of these curved shapes also contain marks that resemble brush strokes. Short lengths of wool protrude from the surface of the canvas in a few places, following the direction of these strokes.

The image was derived from an original embroidery of a dolls’ house, one of a number owned by the artist’s grandmother. Owens first used these in an exhibition at CCA Wattis in San Francisco in 2016. In deciding to scan the embroideries as the starting points for large paintings, she was continuing her approach of using found material from her daily life as the basis for her work. Other source materials for her paintings have included hand-written stories penned by her children on lined paper; old metal plates used to print the LA Times and discovered in her house; classified adverts; and promotional material from magazines.

Untitled 2016 is also typical of Owens’s deployment of a visual reference from outside the realms of ‘fine art’ – in this case, an embroidery associated with domesticity, decoration and women’s craft. She uses such everyday sources (as well as more established art historical ones) in order to open up questions about taste and value, and in order to sustain painting’s relevance within broader contemporary culture. In the case of Untitled, she sets up a confrontation between different kinds of grids: the grids of an embroidery exercise; the grids of decorative patterns; and the grids of modernist abstraction. By placing these grids on a single plane, Owens asks her viewer to consider and rethink the way they are differently judged as ‘decoration’ or as ‘modernist art’.

Owens is also interested in exploring the technical possibilities of computer-based composition, scanning and silkscreening, and this painting derives in part from her interest in these technologies; indeed, in this work, traditional crafts (embroidery) and contemporary technologies collide. The bulbous patches lying ‘over’ the dolls’ house are the result of computer-based drawing; motifs that seem to be brushstrokes are in fact made by selecting a thick curved line from a computer programme menu, and subsequent movements of the mouse. The original embroidery has been photographed and scanned into the computer. In some places, it seems that the scanning has not been accurate and that glitches have occurred. Parts of the ‘dolls’ house’ are replaced by areas of multi-coloured pixellation. These occur at various points on the surface of the image – for instance, some of the roof, the weathervane, a window and the right side of the garden fence. These apparent glitches are the result of Owens deliberately setting the scanner to mistranslate parts of the original embroidery.

Additionally, in such work Owens questions different kinds of materiality. The source material for this painting was a physical, three-dimensional embroidery and it may seem that Owens substitutes its materiality for a scanned, flattened, printed image, just as she replaces actual brush strokes with mouse gestures. However, rather than exchanging apparently outmoded material forms (embroidery, brush work) with contemporary dematerialised forms (digital on-screen imagery), Owens allows her painting to be the place where these differences come together. Indeed Untitled is resolutely physical: Owens has used dyed woven linen (which, unlike a conventionally primed canvas, reads very much as a material surface), has painted in some places on top of silkscreen inks, and has sewn actual strands of wool into the work.

Further reading
Laura Owens, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Zürich, 12 June–13 August 2006.
Laura Owens – Twelve Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Ooga Booga, Los Angeles, 20 January–7 July 2013.
The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 14 December 2014–5 April 2015.
Laura Owens, with contributions by Walead Beshty, Gavin Brown, Trinie Dalton, Mark Godfrey, Suzanne Hudson, Rachael Kushner, Linda Norden, and Wendy Yao, New York 2015.

Mark Godfrey
March 2017

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