Ruminations on Laura Owens, Painting, and her paintings

Has painting plateaued? Is this question clear? Is painting relevant? Or am I just late to the party?

Because I love painting. I am a painter (I don’t paint enough – I’m painting again though) and I love painting. I love to look at paintings, I love the art form of painting. Is it strange to think that painting is in decline? I get a sense people are tired of looking at paintings. But I’m not always sure whether people are tired of looking at paintings because they are looking at paintings or if they are tired of looking at paintings that don’t excite them. Have people been subject to so many bad or unexciting paintings that they have stopped expecting great things from painters and paintings altogether? Or have people just looked at paintings for long enough? There are times I feel like viewers place far to many expectations on paintings and that they put all the burden of the entire tradition of painting on the back of each work they approach and if it does not blow them away then the painting is not interesting enough or is too pretentious or too self-aware.

These feelings have fed off several conversations I had post 2017 Whitney Biennial as well as post Laura Owens show. I brought up the Laura Owens show to someone who then asked me if I’d gone to see it because of “the controversy” (her exhibition fell target to anti-gentrification protests by activists who wanted to address the gentrification of the neighborhood where Owens LA representatives are based in). My answer was “No. I went to see the Laura Owens show because I like contemporary painting” to which I received “Oh.” 

The response I got makes a ton more sense in hindsight because they probably meant it from the point of view of “Why would you willingly put yourself through that show if NOT because of why everyone is talking about it? What here has never been done before, what here have you never seen?” And while my response to this could very plainly be “none of it – I’ve seen none of it” I now think about the ways in which the show employed many repetitive elements almost cursorily to frame this exhibition about painting in an exciting way because Owen’s paintings were truly unescapable. Two or three paintings in and I’d experienced half of what the show had to offer, two or three more and I knew what to expect around the corner. One could say the galleries were littered with paintings more than they showcased them.

Paintings acted both as foreground and background – three rows of paintings lined the very back wall of the galleries, behind partitions, coming in and out of sight, painting-as-crown-molding, painting-as-frame, unimportant. Others were large and imposing and but upon close inspection appeared more like gigantic posters pasted onto canvas than paintings created on the surface of the linen. The treatment, gesso-ing and sizing appeared to render the paintings completely smooth and texture free to the point where spots where the underlying linen was left purposefully exposed felt foreign, as if there solely to remind that the image I was looking at was a painting. And while some paintings felt like paintings, with brushstrokes and interesting build-up of texture on occasion, others felt entirely like renderings altogether and not at all like images created using paint. 

In it of itself this show could have acted as a survey of artworks pushing the boundaries of what paintings represent inherently both by construction (what shape you expect a painting to be, what you expect it to be painted on…) and execution (what a painting is supposed to look like and what supplies you expect painting to be made with…) and some specific objects did in fact act as great stand-ins for this experiment. Some acted like literal paintings of paintings, one interesting triad of earlier works in particular explored the idea of a triptych and how a conversation should happen amongst three works made to be displayed together.

It should come as no surprise, however, that the artworks I found the most compelling were the portraits, in particular the portraits that looked like paintings rather than perfectly matte renditions of 2D images. And I think this is true for a lot of viewers. Owens gave us, her viewers very few sets of eyes to catch our own while we perused and explored. It can be said that portraiture is all the more traditional and the purpose of Owens’ show to subvert or turn her back to the semantics of tradition just a tad but as a result these few figures with eyes, whether human, or animal, caught mine as more interesting than her purely compositional experiments on paintings that had the appearance of brushstrokes.

I meant to write about the Dana Schutz controversy at last year’s Whitney Biennial. Maybe I’ll still write about it, but I did go to the Whitney Biennial partially to see what the hubbub was about and without diving too much into the situation I was endlessly more offended by Jordan Wolfson’s VR piece than I was with Schutz’ painting although I understand the sentiment behind the controversy and wish Schutz and the Whitney Museum had been entirely more tactful about the situation before the exhibition even opened – and also never exhibited it. 

At any rate – two separate exhibitions do not a pattern in viewership opinion make, and I find it likely major exhibitions by a large American museum are likely to draw much more critical opinion than the average gallery but I just can’t seem to shake the sense that the larger art-minded American public does not really care for painting the way it once did or that it tends to lump contemporary painting into categories very easily, not allowing the medium a chance to be or to exist for what it is.

I’ve collected and mulled over these thoughts far longer than they should have been, but still they serve to document the kinds of ideas I’ve mulled over on the subject of painting from about mid-2017 up to now.

-Juno Zago

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