In the age of mass information and consumption, artists often look to the way in which we perceive information, and a certain set of aesthetic principles arise from works of visual art which contemplate the language of the internet. Always appropriated images, some quite glaringly obvious historical references and an overabundance, or poorly thought out application of layering. However, Laura Owens, in her show at Sadie Coles gallery, manages to capture the intensity of the contemporary age through collating and carefully curating her own visual language, which portray the postmodern world in a way which is stark and beautiful.
One of the greatest strengths of Owens’ work is her considered use of appropriated signs; she employs a wealth of imagery which include advertisements, cartoon characters and elements of nostalgic ephemera. The references twist and contort around the canvas, portraying the melting pot of the ‘high’ and ‘low’ in contemporary culture. The references that she chooses are often most symbolic of a yesterday just passed, and present a unique sense of celebration for the new and mourning for the just lost. In one work Owens uses the motif of an old dolls house, instantly recognisable within the collective cultural memory, however details of the house appear to fall into pixilation, disintegrating from their original brown, wooden state into multiple tiny brightly coloured dots. I believe is one of the most successful and touching works of the show, as the dolls house, a stalwart of play for the pre-millennial generation, is lost to the language of the internet.
Along with the use of language of the internet, what makes Owens’ work so dynamic amongst these kitsch references is her ability to also cite works of art historical importance through her use of gesture. The physicality of her impasto brushstrokes, choice of bold colour and fluid, yet stark compositions can be seen to mirror some of the qualities of abstract expressionism, and parallels between her work and that of Kline or De Kooning can be clearly seen.
However, Owens seems to reinvigorate the notion of abstract expressionism for the 21st century; Owens creates a vortex within her works through her use of different depths between the layers of her painting. At first the viewer is confronted by the relief of impasto painting, thick and prominent against the canvas, then when looking closer, one sees the layers of both painting and silkscreen printing contrasted against one another with fluid movements that travel behind and in front of one another. A common refrain throughout Owens work is the use of shadowing behind some of the flowing layers she employs – this gives a sense of definite space, and the shadows in their pixelated forms present a photoshopped aesthetic.
These layers give the work a physicality which leads the viewer into believing the proposition of space, going against Greenbergian tradition of avoiding painting illusionistic space to ensure the “complete and utter flatness” of the canvas. However, as the viewer looks more into the devices that Owens has used, such as pixelated styles of painting and a layered use of media, the illusion fades, and a sense of flatness is restored – arguably referencing the ultimate flatness of the contemporary era, the screen.
The way Owens references the language of the internet is utterly refreshing, as one walks into the gallery one is struck by the oscillation of differences and similarities between the visual language and contextual references of the works. As large canvases sit amongst smaller works, each are democratic in their expression of the contemporary situation of society, and the self within it, and aesthetically beautiful and free-ranging at the same time.