Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Laura Owens

Untitled, 2002
Oil and acrylic on linen. 213 x 335cm
Camden Arts Centre
November 2006

This was my first visit to this gallery and I surprised myself by enjoying the exhibition immensely. It featured finished work from the last ten years and an interesting room full of studies. Even when she does work from photographs for some pieces the image is always built up through a succession of drawings and small paintings and then a full sized cartoon prior to the start of the painting.

This large untitled piece seems to be constructed along the principals of the golden section and probably owes something to oriental paintings for the illusion of depth. It clearly draws inspiration from gestural Chinese brush paintings for some subject content but is firmly located within her own practice and style.

A landscape populated with strange trees, animals, birds, insects and flowers. Despite all the characters, the space looks surprisingly empty. Depth is suggested by the two larger animals, the monkey and the bear, being half obscured by the trunks of the trees that dominate the space. The gazes between the animals, serve to lead the viewers eye through the composition. The sky is mainly cloudy daylight, but part of it is a moonlit night. An owl perches on one of the trees, silhouetted by the night time portion of sky. In the foreground are strewn a few playing cards that hint at a human absence.

The support is dark linen and she works from dark to light rather than the other way around. With the exception of the oil painted flowers in the foreground, her palette is one of soft understated pastel colours. When I first saw the work I thought that the tree trunks had been painted by floating oil paint onto another prepared surface covered with water. After this had dried, the trees had then been cut out and stuck on. Only by further research did I establish that the thickness was a gradual build up of gesso on the support itself! The process description that follows comes from a Russel Ferguson article in Parkett magazine[1].

· Blocks out the silhouettes of the smaller trees and branches with masking tape.

· Paints the monkey in dark water based ink on wet canvas to blur the edges and masks it.

· Thin acrylic washes green and brown earth, blue and white for the sky, rabbits, bear and squirrel also in acrylic. Leaves to dry and covers with a clear matt medium.

· The bigger trees are then painted using paper cut outs as a template, by building up 20 layers of gesso, sanded down between each layer and then the rest of the canvas is masked out. The trees are painted using household paint in about ten different colours, thinned with Floetrol.

· Then switching to oil paint the rest of the painting is added the final spontaneous addition being the hand of cards "to hold the foreground, when it seemed that everything had become too equalised, too much in harmony"

Whilst the painting is more saccharine fantasy than a site of melancholia, her willingness to experiment with the painting process without irony provides a useful contrast to the landscape paintings of other artists I have chosen.

[1] Ferguson Russel Laura Owens Paints a Picture pp58-62 Parkett #65 2002

©blackdog 2009


  1. I need a magnifier in order to recognize/see all the animals, flowers, things- thousands of details, but "the space looks surprisingly empty"- owl -full moon- dark night, a motif, which could remind of Romantic painting (CDF), the plenty of animals could remind of paradise- paintings, but here I have the feel we don't find any paradise (but also no 'paradise lost') considering the bare branches, the lack of deep green and water- and no human being can be seen! I like the play(ing) atmosphere of this painting and the stimulation to seek many, many detils- thus, to be 'active' according her aim:
    "I am not interested in making people uncomfortable, but at the same time I don't have an interest in paintings that are truly passive. The best paintings are ones that require an active, discerning viewer."
    Laura Owens

  2. Yes, I am sorry the original is so small - I have a larger version is you would like me to mail it to you? Interesting that you found the image playful and not melancholic. I agree, but after I posted it I wondered if I had got too caught up with the process and missed an element of loneliness.

  3. An interesting interview with LO , tthis painting has been mentioned, too- painter Rousseau might have influenced her theme/style (yes, I thought of him)