Paintings - Camden Art Centre

Laura Owens’ exuberant and inventive paintings blend an extraordinary range of techniques.

Owens is famous for reinvigorating painting in the 1990s, and this exhibition features work from the last ten years including beautifully expressive preparatory studies. Her paintings refer to Western art history, folk and decorative art and are distinctive for their multi-layered surfaces which oscillate between representation and abstraction.

Owens’ paintings appear effortlessly executed but hide a carefully planned process seen in the accompanying small studies. Her pure pleasure in the act of picture making is unmistakeable. The resulting paintings take on classic colour field painting as well as still life and landscape – mythical scenes are populated by unusual groups of creatures. Owens’ decision to leave her paintings untitled is in order to allow the viewer to experience them on their own terms.

An enthusiastic museum-goer, Owens depicts the spaces in which art is shown in two early paintings in the exhibition. In Untitled (1995) the gallery floor recedes towards a wall of canvases, which includes a reproduction of the very painting we are looking at. Such self-reflexivity is also evident in a large work from 1998 in which Owens, who never signs the front of her canvases, constructs an abstract pattern from her own, endlessly repeated signature. In works from the late 1990s, Owens explored the traditions of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, as well as folk art practices, including embroidery and textiles. Owens’ own mythical landscapes of this period are populated by incongruous groups of creatures and plants combined with abstract and collaged elements, as in Untitled (2001).

In her more recent paintings, Owens has borrowed from sources including Hindu reliefs, tapestry and Western art history. In Untitled (2006), an embracing couple are depicted in garish, expressionistic colours recalling the allegorical paintings of James Ensor.

Influenced by the abstract painter Mary Heilmann, who taught Owens at Cal Arts and who had her first British solo show at Camden Arts Centre in 2001, and by the American folk artist Grandma Moses, Owens herself is an important reference point for younger painters.

The exhibition was accompanied by a new, fully-illustrated catalogue published by Kunsthalle Zürich with texts by Gloria Sutton, Rod Wengham and Beatriz Ruf.

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