20 Paintings by Laura Owens

At the Smith College Art Museum, I ask the security woman, Donna, “What’s the official name of the plaques next to the paintings?” She doesn’t know, so she finds a curator, who tells me they’re called labels, or sometimes, dog tags, or sometimes, tombstones.

“Label” is too obvious. I prefer “tombstone.”

Elaine Bleakney has written a book of tombstones annotating art, poems in a space reserved for explanation.

Bleakney contemplates twenty paintings by artist Laura Owens. Each poem sits at the bottom of the page, as if leaving room for the artwork it describes. But the artwork is not there.

In a review of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Hrag Vartanian says a proper tombstone should provide a “context that augments the experience of looking, while connecting the work to our own time and place,” a difficult task. As futile as (in Bleakney’s own words) “hammering a screw to the bed with a spoon.”

I watch a video of Laura Owens on MOCATV giving a tour of her studio/gallery space in Boyle Heights, LA. She wears huge glasses, an extra large blazer. She doesn’t think of painting as “a vessel for ideas.” Just to have paintings “do what paintings do” is enough.

In a 1990’s ad campaign for Tombstone frozen pizza, a captured US marshal stands with a noose around his neck. His captor, wearing a black hat, goads him. “Too tight, Marshal?”

“No.” “Any last words?” “No.” “What do you want on your Tombstone?” “Pepperoni and cheese.”

Artists don’t get to answer the question. Curators determine the content of their tombstones: name, title of piece, the year you made the piece, your materials, the piece’s size. Sometimes a price. Sometimes an interpretation.

Laura Owens titles some of her work, but an incredible amount is Untitled, making it an impossible task for me to match each of Owens’s paintings to its corresponding Elaine Bleakney tombstone. So I give up trying to do that. I use the white space as a canvas for my own conjured images.

Bleakney’s prose poems aren’t solely free associative or ekphrastic, though one poem does begin “This reminds me of…” She writes a faux rejection letter, a conversation with a liquor store cashier, an unanswered dialogue with her mother.

The director of the Detroit Institute of Arts says tombstones should avoid “the priestly voice of absolute authority.” According to Gail Gregg in ArtNews, many museums are shifting the focus of their labels from “formal language” and “the pronouncement of intentions” to an artist’s personal context. Less “is,” more “seems.”

Bleakney is chatting, voting, collaborating. She pulls Stephen Malkmus, Frank Ocean, Hart Crane into the poems. She cites La prose du Transsibérien as an influence, one of the earliest blends of abstract art and poetry, published by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk in 1913.

20 Paintings by Laura Owens demonstrates a way to collaborate with someone you never plan to meet in real life.

In the opening section of I Love Dick, Chris Kraus writes letters to Dick, a man she’s met only once, a string of unsent love letters. She’s consumed not by him, but by her own excitement. She writes daily. “Dear Dick” and “Dear Diary” become synonymous. He’s no longer a man but a surface for Kraus’s projections, a way to contemplate desire, a wall to talk to.

Bleakney contemplates Owens’s methodology, wondering aloud why a work uses both paint and yarn. She asks Owens, “Were you in love in 2009 hair down frenching someone while holding a cracked gold cup by the stem over condoms, carnations, packs of phenylalanine at the deli?” making Owens a character, constructing her own version of Owens’s personal life, asking to be let in.

In a recent issue of Frieze, Ben Lerner says, “I’ve come to think that one of the powers of literature is precisely how it can describe and stage encounters with works of art that can’t or don’t exist, or how it can resituate actual works of art in virtual conditions.”

Bleakney writes, “I’m beginning to feel this for the mountains when I steer the car.” What is the this? I read it as the content of the Owens painting. Bleakney transforms the painting into a feeling that can overcome her as she looks out the car window and onto the landscape in a certain light.

Although Sold Out, Read more at Poor Claudia

Patrick Gaughan is a poet, performer, & critic living in Northampton, MA. He contributes regularly to BOMB. Find other recent work in Sink Review, Diagram, & Jellyfish. He’ll be performing in Ish Klein’s In a Word, Faust at Flying Object this winter. [tumblr] [twitter]

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