Laura Owens, Between Abstract and Representational Art

Owens in her studio in Los Angeles. Photo: David Benjamin Sherry for The New Yorker
Owens in her studio in Los Angeles. Photo: David Benjamin Sherry for The New Yorker

Laura Owens emerged from the Los Angeles art scene in the late 1990s. Born in 1970 in Euclid, Ohio, she studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1994 she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and received her M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts the same year. Laura has never lost sight of her inner child and her paintings are lively, bold, direct, and sarcastic.

After graduation, Laura moved to Los Angeles to do a post-graduate degree at CalArts in 1992. Since that time, she had become a stronghold of installation art. In the 1990s she wrote to a European curator, “A lot of the work is what goes on between paintings”.

She was the youngest artist to receive a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In one of her exhibitions, there was an untitled 1999 canvas hanging on a wall outside one of the four spaces built for the exhibition. Laura is now a respected contemporary painter, gallery owner, and educator in America.

Abstract and representational art

Laura Owens, Untitled, 2015. Photo: RON AMSTUTZ⁄COURTESY CAPITAIN PETZEL, BERLIN⁄COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

Laura belongs to a generation that does not believe that the creation of abstract or representational art is mutually exclusive. She is known for her mixed-media paintings, mirror work, paintings within paintings, and large-scale works. She knows how to work with irony and keeping honesty, by incorporating a mixture of cultural and historical references.

In her work, Laura makes constant reference that goes from cartoon characters to a painting by Henri Matisse. She has been inspired by kitsch, wallpaper, children’s book illustrations, and greeting cards. Her work is aimed at making an interesting painting, and not to fit into a niche.

Laura is known for her large scale paintings that combine a variety of historical art references and painting techniques. She plays with her style, creating more aesthetic questions than answers. She has stated that “I am not ashamed that the paintings are as grand and ridiculous as possible”.

Career and achievements

Installation view of “Laura Owens,” 2017–18, showing untitled works from 2012, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: RON AMSTUTZ

Her first exhibition was in 2003 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Her work has been presented in solo exhibitions such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, (2001); Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2003); Milwaukee Art Museum (2003); Camden Arts Centre, London (2006); Kunsthalle Zürich (2006); Bonnefanten Museum (2007); Kunstmuseum Bonn (2011); and at Secession, Vienna (2015).

In 2013, Laura converted her workspace into an exhibition space called 356 Mission, in collaboration with art dealer Gavin Brown and Wendy Yao. Shortly thereafter, she organized a second location with the Ooga Booga #2 art bookstore at the front of the building. But finally, the 356 Mission art space closed in 2019, because the lease ended.

Laura and Gavin Brown were accused of being involved with the gentrification of a predominantly working-class, Hispanic neighborhood with their non-profit gallery 356 Mission in Los Angeles. Activists from various anti-gentrification groups have protested her galleries and exhibitions in both Los Angeles and New York City. She alleged that the protesters intimidated and threatened her, including death threats.

Laura has exhibited with the Gavin Brown Enterprise in New York, and her works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery in Washington D.C., among others. In 2015 she made paintings based on World War II newspaper plates she discovered under the roof of her Los Angeles home. Beginning in 2016, she teaches at the ArtCenter College of Design.

Mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum

Installation view of “Laura Owens,” 2017–18, showing untitled works from 1998, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: RON AMSTUTZ

Laura had a mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum Of American Art from November 2017 to February 2018. In the catalog for this show, she recalled, “At first I loved my installations, but the next day I would come in and think they were dead. They never had the longevity that my worst unfinished painting had. Eventually, I decided that whatever I was trying to do with the installation, I could do with a painting.”

The Whitney Museum’s description of her work as “a mid-career retrospective” seems superfluous for someone who has never stopped being in the middle of her career. Laura has based her life, since childhood, on being and being seen as an artist.

In November 2017, she wrote a public statement about the threats she has suffered over the past few years from anti-gentrification groups. This happened while she was suffering a new protest during the opening of her mid-career survey art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Owens was awarded the first Bâloise Award in Art Basel in 1999; the Willard L. Metcalf Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001; and the Robert De Niro, Sr. award for her practice of painting in 2015. She was also a Fellow in the visual arts at the American Academy of Berlin in the spring of 2007.

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