Whitney Museum of American Art
10 November 2017 - 4 February 2018
Review by Torey Akers
Behind every art object lays a complex latticework of decisions. Critics are typically encouraged to grapple with the artist’s decisions first en route to determining an exhibition’s worthiness—maybe those of a curator or gallerist when strictly necessary. Still, it doesn’t take a Marxist to figure out that the artist’s hand is often the least important part of a show, especially an institutionally buttressed one. Vast networks of donors, board members, administrators, collectors, dealers, and sponsors conspire to determine the market value and cultural import of entire oeuvres, not to mention the individual careers hanging in the balance. Any given painting on display in a museum represents a myriad of high-stakes financial relationships, and in an increasingly unadventurous buying climate where smaller galleries are closing left and right, the looming oversight of these gatekeepers strips their efforts of much of their creative sincerity.
The Whitney Museum of American Art has historically positioned itself in the public imagination as an incontrovertible arbiter of taste, the sort of claim that makes its stale, self-consciously presentist choices all the more discouraging. As such, the Laura Owens retrospective currently on view feels less like the mid-career survey of a serious painter and more like an overblown Instagram backdrop, a pandering move that undercuts Owens’ contributions and reasserts the Whitney’s distance from artistic innovation.
Owens came to prominence in the late 1990s in L.A., cementing her status through temperate visual wit and the uninhibited use of hyper-feminine motifs long considered outlandish in macho painting circles. Her no-brow references and art historical nonchalance implicated viewers in aesthetic discourse without stepping on too many toes, and that winning combination of irreverence and technical prowess propelled her quickly into the mainstream spotlight.
Post-digital interpolations of space abound throughout her work, setting the stage for the virtual shallows and reified gestures popularized by artists like Trudy Benson and Keltie Ferris. In short, Owens’ canon is charming, pretty, and, from an early 2000’s perspective, inoffensively feminist-lite. She’s a painter who makes paintings about painting, prodding at the genre’s pomposity as she tacitly affirms its storied magic. Gentle and winking as they are, Owens’s pieces are expensively produced, infinitely collectable, and geared well towards an internet-addled attention span, characteristics that further beg the question…what exactly does a Laura Owens retrospective mean in 2017? The answer seems to be a condescending one, relying on our worshipful consumption of middle-class luxury principles masquerading as high art.
While curatorial notes for the show frame Owens as a cutting-edge figure, Photoshop-inspired multimedia pieces from 2012 and 2014, both ‘Untitled’, feel comfortable to the point of nostalgia, deflating any nascent attempts at kitschy sedition. The five free-standing canvases that constitute ‘Untitled’ (2015), arranged diagonally reveal lines of nonsensical text when approached from a plane-collapsing side-angle, a result that proves far more gratifying through a camera lens than in-person. A reconstructed 1998 collaboration with designer Jorge Pardo includes late-modernist beds and mirrors, an endeavor that doesn’t invite the viewer to consider painting’s fraught affiliation with décor so much as it highlights the figurative snooze-fest at hand. Even her art-star allusions feel old-hat; ‘Untitled’(2013) features a swirling universe of cats in the style of Jackson Pollock, and a smaller painting from 2000, also un-named, revamps Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1893 masterpiece ‘In Bed’. This invocation of Art History 101 confuses accessibility for universal consumption; Owens’ seemingly abyssal grab bag of citations, covering everything from Indian miniatures to the Color Field painters, ensures that anyone darkening the Whitney’s doors will like at least one thing on the wall.
Still, the show’s inescapable banality shouldn’t be reduced to some one-dimensional condemnation of Owens as a painter. She’s been art-world approved for decades; her work trails in the shadow of the central issue which is that this is an exhibition designed to avoid any inkling of risk to draw in winter break ticket sales, and garner consciousness-points for supporting a living woman artist while retaining its commitment to white centrism and a long-standing commitment to commerce over creativity.
There is an untapped bevy of high-profile women painters forgotten in favor of optic inertia. Let’s be clear—revolutions can absolutely be blush-pink, and art doesn’t need to scream to be thoughtful. But in 2017, it behooves institutions with histories of tone-deaf tokenism to move beyond entertainment to active, original inclusion. Jimmie Durham’s excellent At The Center of the World, initially organized by the Hammer Museum, occupies the same floor as Owens’ show, and Toyin Ojih Odutola’s beautiful pastels can be found a few galleries below in To Wonder Determined. While their P.R. campaigns paled in comparison to Owens’, these shows deserve much broader attention. Suffice it to say, it’s difficult to examine Owen’s work through the transactional haze wafting throughout the exhibition - salability and relevance are not the same thing.