For Owens, art and life are constantly changing |

For Owens, art and life are constantly changing

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Laura Owens has not fully arrived in her artistic career. Owens is just 32, well on the young side to have established her name. And Owens’ current touring exhibit, which showed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles this past spring and opens at the Aspen Art Museum this week, is the first to feature a substantial portion of her work.

And then there is the question of whether Owens will ever completely arrive anywhere as an artist. Surveying the work that makes up the Aspen Art Museum exhibit – a sprawling collection of paintings and drawings that inhabits both the upper and lower galleries of the museum – one is instantly struck by how wide-ranging Owens’ art is. There are abstractions, figures, landscapes and flowers. There are huge light-hued paintings with light-hearted monkeys – some smiling, one wearing eyeglasses – hanging on branches; Eastern-inspired flower arrangements; a painting of a couple in bed; a tiny cityscape collage; and a multimedia painting of many spooky sets of eyes, peering out in dark Halloween colors. Some paintings are intensely busy; others are still and silent.

It is a reflection of Owens’ way of being, to make such marked movements and have them be natural. What she is one day is not necessarily what she will be the next.

“I feel like I wake up and don’t feel like the same person I was,” said Owens, who does not seem the type to make grandiose statements just to sound good. “I change, things change, and I have to approach the work with all these changes, with that atmosphere in mind. There are things happening in the world, and they affect me. I know I’m not a thing, I’m a flux.”

Related to that sense of constant change is how Owens allows a multitude of influences to affect her work. “I let a lot of things influence me – a photo I take; something somebody says – even one word; a piece of textile, something I sketch, someone else’s painting – and I’ll just go from there,” she said, while overseeing the installation of her exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum. “Each time I start from a different place, and let the process take over from there.”

The swirl of changing landscape and influences has meant that Owens has learned to move quickly as an artist. “What I’m learning about myself is if I have an idea and I don’t do it right away, that opportunity is gone. I can’t go back and do it,” she said.

Often, that sense of restlessness is expressed in a single work. In many of her larger works – and even in some smaller pieces – there is no precise center that attracts the eye. One painting has a monkey hanging from a branch, an abstract segment that seems influenced by Owens’ interest in textiles, foreground and background, sky and land and splattered paint spots, all existing on a variety of spatial planes.

“I think I’m someone who’s really interested in the co-existence of things that are obviously at odds with each other. But in the same world,” she said. “There is always a feeling of, why can’t I do this kind of painting and combine it with this kind of painting? It might be two or 10 disparate elements in one painting, with them sitting in the same space but having their own existence. There are animals that don’t exist in the same ecosystems, for instance.”

All that said, there are recurrent ideas in Owens’ work. Animals, for instance: In the current exhibit (the subject of an 88-page catalog, and which heads to the Milwaukee Art Museum this fall and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, next spring), there are monkeys, birds, snakes, dogs, mice, beavers, bats and more. The animals fit in well with the playfulness and whimsy that underlie most – but not all – of the work. In the end, Owens believes a signature will emerge.

“In art school and in the formal gallery world, something that’s pushed is to have a consistent style, that’s identifiable to a teacher or a collector. I guess I’ve reacted against that,” she said. “But you hold onto markers that are your identity. I have to have faith that in the long run, a consistency will emerge. And you will see a pattern, a synthesis. And if that doesn’t happen, that’s OK too.”

Art as an escape

For Owens, changing the atmosphere that surrounded her has been a goal from early on. She was raised in Norwalk, Ohio, a small farm town just a few miles from Lake Erie. It was a stifling place for Owens, and art represented a way out.

“I wanted to get out of Ohio,” said Owens, who began painting at the age of 15. “I felt like I had an experience with art that I didn’t have with movies or music. I felt like I had a one-on-one experience with the artist, and I responded to that experience.”

After graduating from the local high school – a “lousy,” one, according to Owens – and escaping “claustrophobic, “limiting” Norwalk, she went to the Rhode Island School of Design. It was like discovering a new world.

“I thought, `Oh, I’m not crazy,’ ” she said. “There are other people who don’t think life is just about driving around drunk and hitting mailboxes with a baseball bat. It was really challenging, and I hadn’t been challenged before.”

After two years of learning formal technique at RISD, Owens grew bored with the program there, finding it stuck in the past. At the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where Owens did graduate work, she found an atmosphere more suited to her taste.

“It was real conceptual, very contemporary. They treated you more like a peer rather than a student,” said Owens. She also finds her current residence in Echo Park, near downtown Los Angeles, ideal for an artist. “Art there is in the background of Hollywood. You’re not in the center of the art scene there,” said Owens, whose work has nevertheless been featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; New York’s Museum of Modern Art; the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; and is included in numerous private collections.

As much as anything, art attracted Owens because of the open-endedness of it. An artist, Owens thinks, is never supposed to arrive anywhere, but is to keep pursuing the journey.

“I wanted to do something that didn’t have an answer,” she said. “I thought with art, you could make up your own questions. I thought you could never finish.”

“Laura Owens” opens at the Aspen Art Museum with a reception for the artist on Friday, Aug. 1, from 6-8 p.m. The exhibit runs through Sept. 28.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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