Laura Owens – Vincent Van Gogh: A Conversation Through Time
Van Gogh Foundation, Arles, France
through October 31, 2021
No blue without yellow and without orange, and if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well, surely.Vincent Van Gogh, Letter to Emile Bernard, Arles (June 7, 1888)
Written by Gary Brewer
While on an artist residency in Provence, France, I had the opportunity to see the Laura Owens – Vincent Van Gogh exhibition at the Van Gogh Foundation in Arles, France. What an impressive opportunity for a contemporary painter to be paired with Van Gogh.
Laura Owens is a Los Angeles based artist whose success began in the 1990s. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2013, Owens along with Wendy Yao and Gavin Brown, founded 365 Mission, an impressive warehouse, art studio, and gallery space. For five years it had a rich run of exhibitions of contemporary artists as well as lectures and performances. It also shared the space with Ooga Booga Bookstore: it was an impressive early manifestation of Los Angeles transforming into a major center of contemporary art. The first exhibition was a group of 12 enormous paintings that Owens’s created in the building. Some of the formal abstract motifs she was experimenting with at that time are present in the installation that she created for the show in Arles.
She took on the show at the Van Gogh foundation with an ambitious vision in mind and a level of chutzpah and determination that she realized with a fearless panache. She lived in Arles for about a year during the Covid lockdown, investigating Van Gogh’s life there and the work that he created. She also researched each of the seven paintings that would be included in this exhibition. She used patterns from early 20th century design, some of which she found in a book of work created by an unknown designer, Winifred How in 1916-19, that she purchased at a book fair as a resource for her paintings, specifically with this project in mind.
These became some of the motifs that she drew from to create the vast colorful wallpaper that fills the galleries of the Van Gogh Foundation. The wallpaper is created using a variety of techniques: silk screening, wood block printing, hand painting, felt flocking and air brushing, to create lush fields of rich complex designs. The beautiful colors and playful, bold designs are a reflection of the patterns from the era in which Van Gogh painted and are not unlike the patterns that we see in the backgrounds of many of Van Gogh’s portraits. Owens layers the patterns and in some areas uses drop shadows to give the illusion of spatial depth. At the edges of the walls and in the corners of the rooms, some of the design silhouettes of the overlays draw from abstract motifs in her paintings. They are a distinctive signature of the artist’s work and emphasize her interest in pattern as a narrative element and a formal device to structure her paintings and to convey ideas.
The rooms work wonderfully as installations in themselves. Each wall is a bold compilation of one, two or three patterns alone or in concert. She inserts playful contemporary sticker designs as well, giving it a pop culture ingredient that brings these Victorian era wallpaper designs up to the present. The drop shadows, which create spatial illusions of depth, bring an architectural element into the rooms. Planar overlays are activated through this simple device of creating the illusion of shadows animating the space, causing one plane to hover just above the other.
In the middle of some of these vast walls is hung a single Van Gogh painting. Though the intent is an homage and interactive collaboration between two artists, in my mind, the Van Gogh’s felt a little lost in the vast sea of pattern and color. Having seen his work in many museum collections: my prejudice is for a simple background for his paintings to explode in our imaginations, without the distraction of other visual stimuli. That being said, one wonders if the clean, well lit, white cube of contemporary art galleries has impacted the way we see. Clearly in the era that Van Gogh worked, bold wallpaper patterns and rooms filled with the boisterous objets d’art would have been the normal context in which one would have seen his work. In some respects, Owens is both bringing the work into the present with the use of digital media and the contemporary concerns that her work addresses, and taking the work back to the context in which it was originally intended to be seen at the same time.
Owens has said that the interaction of her work with Van Gogh’s, “creates an environment suspended between the pre-modern and the contemporary” and that “The spaces on this level evoke not just the wallpapered interiors that Van Gogh knew from his time in Arles, but equally the world of scanners, Photoshop and digital printing,” It is a thoughtful and poetic gesture that Owens is after: her research as well as the intelligence and insight that she brings to these creations is impressive and are meant as love poems to Van Gogh.
The strongest wall for me, in terms of the Van Gogh painting standing out clearly against the bold patterns, is the Hammer Museum’s Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889, a particularly strong piece with a clear spatial dynamic of the figure ground of the trees in the foreground, against the strong yellow of the hospital walls and the red roof. The paintings clear spatial coordinates interacted more eloquently and dramatically with Owens’ spatial play of the animated planes of wallpaper designs.
On other walls she includes her own paintings: colorful, bold and playful, some with fat physical passages of paint. The compositions in some of her paintings are abstract with curves and arabesques dancing to a chromatic music that echoes and interacts with the wallpaper designs. In these works there is a formal interplay that breathes easily between pattern and painting.
In another large painting by Owens, Untitled, 1997, a plain field of pale gray-blue is lushly applied with thick horizontal pulls of a palette knife or trowel. Two fatter bands of muted blue traverse the bottom edge, their thick impasto and physicality casting a shadow. Two black paint strokes in the muted field of color suggest birds in flight and are animated with drop shadows that give the painting a tromp l’oil effect. It is a calm and cool minimal painting and alludes to Van Gogh’s late painting Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, paired down to a form of abstract materialist minimalism. The cool simplicity of this composition plays off of the wall behind it with sumptuous physicality; the spatial illusion making it hover gently upon the wall.
These vast rooms of color and design electrify the spaces of the first galleries. As we head up the next two floors, it becomes a survey of smaller works by Owens from the 1990’s to the present. Her paintings express a fluid, synthetic vernacular, drawing together narratives, imagistic fantasies and abstraction with equal enthusiasm. They reflect the freedom and exuberance of an inquisitive, creative artist giving themselves the liberty to take it all in and fuse many sources of inspirations into buoyant novel paintings.
In a small upper room is a wonderfully inventive group of books that the artist made in response to the Van Gogh’s letters and the seven paintings that were loaned for the exhibition. They are a creative extension of her paintings into physical objects: eccentrically shaped and colorful. They include sculptural pop-up books and video components and are arrayed on several tables in the room.
On the day that I came to see the show, many women were dressed in wonderfully bright, colorful patterned dresses. As they moved about the room, there was a lovely interactive quality, as though they had stepped out of the brightly colored wallpaper. In the spirit of Arles and the legacy of Van Gogh, they became participants in a creative performance, adding another layer to this rich, creative multi-tiered endeavor by Laura Owens.