Untitled, 2001 by Laura Owens
Untitled, 2001 by Laura Owens

From Exuberance to Meditation

Painting is being revived, and the word in art circles is that 34-year-old Los Angeles artist Laura Owens is giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When attempting to breathe new life into an entire art form, it helps to have other artists on hand to administer CPR, one of whom is David Hockney, who helped finance this touring exhibition that concludes at North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Stepping into the "Laura Owens" exhibition at MoCA is like being submerged in a creamy, gelato-colored world of extra-large canvases embedded with flora and fauna, a bio-network of whimsical monkeys, badgers, owls, flowers, trees, and little people. Yet it doesn't end there. This exhibition of 43 pieces is a monographic survey of Owens's work that follows her nascent yet rapidly ascending career through her playful tangents, progressions, and layered appropriations from 1997 to the present.

Owens's inspirations are free-ranging, diverse, and humorous. She brings to the canvas American folk art, Chinese landscapes, children's illustrations, embroidery, flower-and-bird fabric motifs, and more. Nothing is off limits. She embraces the historically anonymous with the same fervor as the established. Her references include insider and outsider styles, as well as various art movements such as color-field abstraction. She is painting about painting.

In a number of pieces (all her works are untitled, a salute to modernist abstraction and minimalist artists) a pistachio-colored landscape is home to rainbows and tree-dangling monkeys created in the style of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Interestingly the Song period is said to be the equivalent of the European Renaissance and represents the advent of Chinese modernity.

Owens's layering of stylistic palettes leaves out no consecrated artist. There are direct appropriations of Van Gogh's Sunflowers in two mixed-media pieces. Another example is her Americanization of Toulouse-Lautrec's painting of two sleeping female prostitutes, Le Lit. Owens supersized it, taking the original two-foot horizontal piece and amplifying and embellishing and transforming it into a six-foot vertical work. It was recast as an innocuous image, sweet and tender, that could have come from a children's storybook.

Helen Frankenthaler's technique of using thinned paint on unprimed canvas is apparent in a piece created in 2000, in which a floral arrangement insinuates itself upon the canvas, its petals alternating between paint and the mere suggestion of pigment.

A second-generation postmodern painter and 1994 graduate of Cal Arts, Owens is very much in demand; collectors are on waiting lists that stretch several years into the future. (She was selected for the 2004 Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York.) Yet this burgeoning fame is not without its critics. Owens's naysayers comment on the lack of conceptual depth in her work (which may be so), but less than ten years after her first solo show, it's obvious she's doing something right. Besides, reading art for conceptual double-entendres is passé. Meta-painting, however, is much more intriguing; the search for meaning in a work becomes a contemporary commentary on the evolution of the historical, the forgotten, the discredited, the anonymous.

In "Coded Memoirs," an exhibition at the Barbara Gillman Gallery, artist Roberta Marks seems to be looking backward at life, through the eyes of a newfound Eastern Enlightenment. Perhaps Marks is piecing together explanations that previously eluded her. Maybe in her work she experiences the introspection that leads to the acceptance of having no answers at all.

Marks received her B.F.A. and M.F.A. from the University of Miami and the University of South Florida respectively. Today she alternates residence between Key West and Paris, France. She began her artistic career constructing eclectic, Cornell-like boxed sculptures and proceeded to handling clay, creating large contemporary vessels that evoked pre-Colombian artifacts. She later tackled two-dimensional work in the form of acrylic pigment on canvas. Now, to a certain extent, Marks has returned to sculptural work by incorporating found objects -- bits of tarnished treasures and forlorn refuse that has forgotten its purpose but not its meaning -- into collaged, oil-slicked fabrics and paper.

An example of this is A False Sense of Security, in which barbed wire is stretched across the top third of the work, over a square, scorched piece of fabric. The center barb is rendered unidentifiable, wrapped in lace.

Also of note is Hanging Words Out to Dry, a simple, delicate piece in which a cord suspends a tattered little black journal on a dark background scribbled in longhand. Among the phrases is "You and the night come together."

Overall, "Coded Memoirs" is a meditative exhibition yet a bit controlled. Perhaps there is too much unspoken tension, too much yin-yang, if you will. Curatorially the aesthetic balances are somewhat forced. For example some pieces were grouped together in sets of two, in instances when the right piece was dark and the left one was light. In another case, the focal point of one negated the focal point of the other.

"Laura Owens"

Through May 9 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St, North Miami; 305-893-6211.

"Coded Memoirs"

Through April 10. Barbara Gillman Gallery, 3814 NE Miami Ct; 305-573-1920. Meet the artist Saturday, April 3, at 3:00 p.m.


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