whitehot | March 2009, Interview with Laura Owens
Mary Anna Pomonis: You are from Ohio, do you think your work has a midwestern sensibility?
Laura Owens: I definitely did when I first came to California and began making art here. I guess I haven’t thought about it in a while. There was a deadpan or straight-forward humor in my earlier work. I am friends with Scott Rader, his work has that sensibility as well. In general, if I think about it, the answer is yes, my work has a midwestern straight-forwardness. I suppose I thought about it [art] more in the past. Now I just have time to make. One of the goals I used to have for painting was that the painting did not refer you out of the painting, but that everything you needed to know was right there in the painting. There are a lot of paintings that refer to things outside of the art that are mental rather than the experiential. When I am trying to look at a painting and decide whether it's finished or not I am physically or bodily engaged with it and that is how decide.
MAP: Your paintings have a variety of techniques depending on subject matter - sometimes the paint is flat and sometimes it looks like icing. How do you decide on the application?
LP: I do a lot of studies for each painting and in each painting I am asking myself to start over and to start from scratch. I use a toolbox of materials: lava gel and fluorescent paint, collage application and old materials as well. I want to feel like I have a huge toolbox so that each painting dictates its own materials. I definitely don’t use each technique in each piece. A certain type of experience begins each piece so that things make sense or they don’t for each piece.
If I look back at my work objectively I think that those techniques, the thin or the thick are used to literalize space. I think that those techniques play back and forth between space both flat and deep. In early modernist painting artists like Matisse and Cezanne could move space using just color and form. Matisse is an interest that I have had since undergraduate school and I'm trying to develop a relationship with his space in painting.
MAP: The first painting I saw of yours was this giant painting at ACME in 1998. It was enormous and it seemed to navigate the space of the entire show.
LP: That painting I made in the gallery for the show. I matched the wall color of the gallery and although it was a huge painting (I built it in the space and it fit exactly) it was small because it was camouflaged in the gallery. I was thinking a lot about the viewer’s body walking through the space.
MAP: I read once that you said, “Every painting is about the history of painting.” Certainly your work references very diverse influences, what are your influences now?
LP: In London I went back to the textile department at the Victoria and Albert Museum where you can pull out and look at tons of embroidery. I am really interested in embroidery and pearl work from the seventeenth century. I am interested in the way that the wool or the silk on the linen relates to the way I think about paint sitting on the surface of canvas as thick or thin. I feel a good feeling from the pieces. A lot of the work there was made by twelve or thirteen year old girls and they were artists just working anonymously - they feel like anonymous gems. I look at a wide variety of stuff, a lot of anonymous folk art. [For] this recent painting I was thinking a lot about the way Tiepolo paints sky, and one particular piece of Van Gogh's, where a blue was painted over orange, is really interesting to me.
I imagine what I meant is that every painting has to carry the baggage of the history of painting. But as an artist you need to discard that history, it’s a hard thing. It’s that whole thing of shedding and forgetting everything in the studio. That’s why I enjoy the sense of freedom in California. It would be great to live in New York and go out to the Met, but it's great not to and not be weighed down by that. Here there is the feeling of the frontier. I can imagine making paintings in Paris would be really hard. I am sure I could do it but it would be different. It's nice here, Los Angeles is constantly reinventing itself. I like the fact that I can go the Prado and come back here to digest it and reflect on how I feel, or make art out of it. Some of that work is so overwhelming. It’s hard to get out from under it sometimes. I believe my role as an artist is to take it [art history] in, digest it and let it go. I have to feel like I am making my own work otherwise it's impossible to make art.
MAP: Do young women approach you now for advice about their painting?
LP: I have cultivated relationships with some students and I really enjoy keeping up with what they are doing and their work. I don’t have a lot of good advice. It is really good to see how an artist develops over time. I do still feel that in the painting world it feels like there are just as many female painters, however when you get to recognition it feels like they are less and less recognized. I can’t think about it too much. I always feel like my top female students have a much harder time getting gallery recognition. The male students seem to have an easier time. I don’t know why that is. There isn’t any outright prejudice. However, when I notice a gallery doesn’t have any female artists on their roster it makes me feel like it’s not for me. I can’t help it, even though I think their prejudice is completely unconscious. There are elements of social exchange that are primitive, like CEOs of companies are statistically six inches taller that the average person. Historically, successful female artists are always mad women like Georgia O’Keeffe - that seems to be the only traditional way women are to be regarded, which I feel is not really an enlightened point of view. I mean we [artists] are supposed to be an enlightened group we are supposed to stretch peoples’ consciousness.
MAP: You emerged as an artist in the late nineties how has the world changed since then?
LP: Oh my god it's like night and day. I look back and feel sort of sentimental. It has been a great time for Los Angeles. Everything that has happened has been positive for Los Angeles. When you take in the bigger context like the speed at which shows are happening or the amount of international exhibitions it's overwhelming. It couldn’t have gone any better. Now nobody leaves L.A. when they graduate from grad school. I mean half of my class from Cal Arts left, but I was a part of the half that stayed. MOCA has been such an important part of the international success of Los Angeles. I was so depressed when I heard about MOCA’s financial problems. It's heartbreaking. For everyone that is interested in art it’s a critical institution. Think about the impact on the city for tourists, residents, readers and viewers - the death of MOCA would be horrible.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief