Giving girl stuff a good name

Times Staff Writer

It has been said that in the history of art, "anonymous" was a woman -- relegated to artistic invisibility, often through production of embellished crafts. Laura Owens is a painter who seems to take surprising solace in this fact -- this narrative of namelessness -- for she has found within it a bright and breezy avenue of liberation.

A lovely and engaging exhibition of 31paintings and 26 works on paper by Owens opened over the weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It surveys her work from the last six years, beginning shortly after her 1994 graduation from CalArts with a master's in fine arts. Often big, sometimes mawkish and always very smart, Owens' paintings are hugely ambitious.

They are also eminently reasonable.

They don't posit painting as a grandiose struggle with life-and-death forces. They don't pretend art is the most important thing going. The only story in her work is the painting's story -- its jabs, its feints, its allusions and, yes, illusions. In an age of grandiosity, it's a story we've needed to hear, which explains the unusual speed with which this 32-year-old artist's career has taken off.

Occasionally an artist goes from school straight into the warm and welcoming embrace of the art world. Dealers, collectors, curators and critics are not the ones who initiate the launch. Artists do. Peers, whether fellow students or faculty, know when an artist of exceptional gifts has turned up in their midst. Everyone else hears about it from them. It happened to Mike Kelley in the 1980s and to Matthew Barney a decade later. In the late 1990s, it happened to Owens.

The MOCA exhibition shows that the artists were right.

Owens is at the leading edge of a large coterie that has brought painting back to prominence -- not through bombast but by dismissing both its pretensions and those of its grandiloquent detractors. Her art flicks those attitudes away like pieces of lint or an errant bug.

Painting as a practice is only fraught -- bearing grim historical burdens and promises of menace -- if it is seen through a dark and domineering lens of heroic tradition. Owens has instead come up with something marvelous, insouciant and brave: She makes monumental girlie art.

Take her nearly 10-foot-tall untitled paintings of monkeys dangling playfully from artfully branching trees. The theme derives from Chinese painting of the Song dynasty -- silk scrolls by anonymous artists or, in one case, a famous triptych by 13th century monk Muqi. Owens knits them together with effects that come from such diverse sources as children's book illustration, high Modernist abstraction and low 1970s pattern painting.

Decorative effects are emphasized. Sometimes her oil or acrylic paint is squeezed straight from the tube, so that it looks like cake frosting pushed through a pastry tube. In a brand new work, a fuzzy, cuddly koala sits on a stylized Chinese boulder and clutches a flowering branch derived from 18th century embroidered textiles. Against all odds, the clash of sweet effects is visually bracing.

In the image of a mother gibbon holding her baby, instinctive maternal feeling merges with a mysterious blank stare. This conflicted impression -- familiar yet ambiguous, intimate but distant -- is disconcerting and vibrant. Song art emerged from a dynamic period of technological development, social innovation and commercial growth, which gives it a certain resonance today. At the same time, it's so remote as to provide Owens' work with a salutary detachment and surprise -- one she tweaks with dangerously corny additions, like giving one gibbon a pair of eyeglasses.

The show's earliest work is a baby blue canvas with darker horizontal stripes across the bottom edge. Two M-shaped squiggles and one dot of thick paint are scattered in the space above. These marks recall a child's drawing of birds in flight, which turns the blue background into rudimentary sky and the dark stripes across the bottom into a stylized sea.

The thick squiggles and dot are repeated in spray paint, which creates the misty illusion that they're objects casting shadows on a screen. Another sprayed mark at the upper edge projects in your imagination a thick squiggle that would reside somewhere in real space above the painting.

So, in addition to children's art, the 1996 canvas also recalls an earlier artist from Owens' own childhood -- James Havard, a once-popular, mostly forgotten 1970s champion of so-called "Abstract Illusionism," a style of painting that made the tough mysteries of Modern art safe for the aspirational middle class. Young artists often go straight for discredited movements of the past. Like Song dynasty monkey paintings, this one is a source at once usefully removed yet pointed, speaking of the place of art in today's entertainment-driven world.

Art by women is also frequently acknowledged. The legacy of Georgia O'Keeffe turns up in a painting of parallel vertical stripes of color, separated by a sky-blue expanse -- an abstract view down an urban street that signifies a canyon formed by Manhattan skyscraper cliffs.

Helen Frankenthaler's ghost is here in acres of raw canvas and thinned pigment, while Susan Rothenberg turns up in an elemental subject for a young girl's art -- a big painting of a horse. And the easy informality of an abstraction by Mary Heilmann, who was Owens' teacher at CalArts, comes through everywhere -- along with some nods to Heilmann's painted plaids.

If you didn't know, you might think from the plethora of styles that this was a group show. In addition to the anonymous, the alien and the art of modern women, Owens looks to European tradition with a witty, skeptical eye.

A large interpretation of a small 1892 painting by Toulouse-Lautrec shows the tousled heads of two prostitutes peeking out from luxurious bedcovers, but Owens has transformed it. The horizontal French oil, just 2 feet wide, crackles with the flames of broken color of Toulouse-Lautrec's brush, its crimson blanket and fiery background turning up the heat. By stark contrast, crisp white sheets and a chilly Prussian blue dominate Owens' vertical canvas -- which is 6 feet tall -- lowering the voyeuristic temperature. Across the bottom, a richly rendered floral coverlet on a sunny yellow ground helps change Toulouse-Lautrec's panting erotic inferno into a cool vista of sensual fecundity -- pretty and playful, more American than French.

Scale is often critical to Owens' art. One pair of paintings shows mirror images of numbers scattered across pale blue fields of color. Each canvas recalls the numbered connect-the-dot puzzles in children's game books. The numbers range in size from less than an inch to more than a foot, establishing a rudimentary illusion of pictorial space.

Actual space is coaxed into the mix by hanging the mirror-image paintings on opposite sides of a room, energizing the area between them.

The numbers don't readily add up to a recognizable picture, but they do entangle a viewer in the ambiguous play. And that's key to her art's success. Maybe you're the inexplicable picture that Owens' dots connect.

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'Laura Owens'

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Closed Mondays

Ends: June 22

Price: $8, adults; $5, students and seniors. Free on Thursdays.

Contact: (213) 626-6222

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday March 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction Opening date -- In the review of the Laura Owens exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monday's Calendar, the opening date was incorrect. The show opened March 16, not over the March 21st weekend.
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