I saw the big Laura Owens show at the Whitney Museum this winter. Her wild swings from one pseudo style to the next were confounding. Perhaps the idea of a so-called mature style is old fashioned, and good riddance to it if what it means is settling into to a low-risk mode of working that is comfortable for the artist and reassuring to the market. Simon Schama said that Rembrandt, in his late work, showed a healthy “disdain for ingratiation”, as all great art must. But when the bent to personal stylistic innovation crosses over into habitual variation what you get is an art without conviction. The overarching vibe of the Owen’s retrospective –that all ties must be cut and all continuities disrupted–was renunciation.
A good example of this is Owens’ series of paintings featuring the letters of the alphabet. At the Whitney they were installed high on a gallery wall and partly obscured by another wall, a display choice that was cagey, mystifying, ultimately abortive. The paintings themselves comprise a meandering array of typefaces embalmed in a mix of cutesy imagery and ersatz abstraction. Several mainstays of Post-Modernism are here: pastiche featuring the unholy blurring of popular art and ambitious painting, fatal critique of received culture, and the depressing implication that language (and by extension all text, including things like paintings) can broker no significant connection to real experience; that expressions of life or attempts to speak into the real lives of people and society are consigned to meaninglessness before the words ever come out of our mouths.
Only arbitrary connections exist between the language we use and the world it describes. Moreover, these paintings seem to say, painting styles are arbitrary, too. Best to de-contextualize them. Set them free, for it is only through unmooring them that they attain authenticity. Exposing the myth of well-known paintings styles is the only truth we can make of them. Forget that the original practitioners of the styles Owens mocks were sincere artists, too wrapped up in making something genuine and new out of the culture they inherited to step outside of it and poke fun.