A Room of Owens’s Own

Laura Owens in Conversation with Jan Tumlir and Stephen Berens

On March 28, 2013, X-TRA editors Stephen Berens and Jan Tumlir met with Laura Owens at 356 South Mission Road, the site of her most recent exhibition in Los Angeles, which opened on January 20. The ensuing discussion has been divided into two parts. The first, printed here, concerns the space of the exhibition, and the second, which will follow in our next issue, concerns the paintings within that space. This two-part structure is reinforced throughout by what Owens describes as a “tension between exhibition and painting.”

Laura Owens: The whole idea was to rent a space and make the work and then show it in the space.

Jan Tumlir: And then presumably take it out…

LO: I had this guy who’s working for me measure the diagonal on that door over there. And I had him reconfirm it three times, like, what’s the maximum we can get out? And he said, definitely we can get out 120 inches, and that’s why the paintings are 120 inches wide. But he didn’t measure these little doodads that are welded on the outside of the door. So, of course, we will have to take off this welded sliding door before we can get them out… Or maybe they’ll never move.

JT: Your choice of this space had to do with scale? Or was it the location, or something else?

LO: I had looked at a lot of spaces that were maybe the size of this smaller room, but had really serious connotations—like a defunct paint store, a church, a theater. There were either conceptual or architectural features that could relate in a one-to-one way with the work; interesting for me to do, but I came to feel like maybe I’ve done that a lot. Then I saw this space, it was giant, and it put the pressure back on the paintings. I had to make a straightforward painting show, but in a harder way, because the exhibition of it would be sort of over-determined. I was trying to find the perfect room to show in for 10 years.

JT: But the space isn’t neutral.

LO: No, it’s not neutral. It was a lithography studio; there’s a plaque on the outside of the building, I think, that alludes to that. Afterwards it was supposedly Liberace’s piano storage. It has a certain feeling of a type of studio or exhibition space that we can maybe imagine on the East Coast, I don’t know. But what it did for me was to remind me of these experiences where I’d curated other people’s work in my studio and collaborated with other artists. And so, I thought, in this space I could do this whole other thing as well, which is something I’ve been interested in.

JT: And the whole other thing is?

LO: Allowing other things to happen.

JT: Like the bookstore, for instance.

LO: Yeah, we invited Wendy Yao to come here and open another Ooga Booga, just to see. It’s something we thought might work in the neighborhood because there’s a lot of studios near here. So people come by, take a break from their art, look at some books.

Ooga Booga #2 at 356 South Mission Road.

Ooga Booga #2 at 356 South Mission Road. Image courtesy 356 South Mission Road and Gavin Brown’s enterprise.

JT: That, to me, added a few connotations. Coming in through the bookstore and then looking at the paintings, I was thinking that there’s a lot of type in those paintings. And there’s imagery that relates to the form of the storybook.

LO: Oh, yeah, Wendy and I did this book together that predates these paintings, and those classified ads I reproduced on the paintings come out of that book. So there’s a natural reason why Wendy and I have been working together. A couple of years ago she mentioned wanting to grow her business, and I said, “Why don’t you publish?” She helped me produce this book, it’s called Fruits and Nuts. She’s doing a lot more publishing and hopefully it’s going to help the business of what she does, which is to curate this really specific space for interesting music and books and ’zines you wouldn’t find in an everyday bookstore.

JT: I know you’ve had an interest in bookmaking for a while.

LO: Yeah, and this space we’re in is part of a bookmaking studio where we make books, and we’re planning on doing some workshops with experts on different types of binding and things like that.

JT: To me, the thing in the paintings that seems to have the closest connection to the space is the want ads, just because they’re so emphatically pre-digital, almost obsolete.

LO: Those were written in the late 1960s, and they have a certain kind of language about sexuality that is lost to us now. There’s an innocence about revealing one’s sexuality and asking for company and selling things and trying to find people.

Stephen Berens: Like the ad in the one painting where the guy is going to give gals a painting, if they’ll model for him.

LO: Yeah, it was a time when the sexual revolution started to happen. This stuff can get printed in the back of a radical newspaper, and it’s still incredibly innocent and fraught with desire in the purest way. That was one of the main interests I had in it.

JT: And it’s relating this almost obsolete information technology to the industrial location.

LO: Yeah, I had been using grids before I started working here, but when I picked the space and I was sitting in here, the windows in these grids also had a relationship to what I was thinking about.

JT: And a relationship to the printing press, to moveable type.

SB: So, how did you arrive at the decision to do this rather than simply show with somebody?

LO: Just didn’t want to do a show with somebody. Didn’t have a somebody I wanted to do a show with. I had left my gallery, knowing it wasn’t going to work out with them. It was becoming clear that what my vision was and what I wanted to do might not even fit within that world. Maybe you don’t have to do a gallery show by following the way it’s been predetermined. Maybe there’s another way. I think I’m really lucky: I work with Gavin Brown, and he’s helping me to do this, we’re partnering in it. He just let me find a space and trusted what I thought would work, not really knowing what it would be. It’s pretty unique in that way. Gavin doesn’t want to have a gallery out here; he’s not interested in this being his gallery. But he is interested in a space where his interests, my interests, and other people’s interests can come together, and where something can happen. And then it can move, lie on top of another thing and another, you know, many, many other things. It just stays really open. There’s not a predetermined function to it, or time length to the shows, or anything like that.

JT: It seems significant that there’s no name on the door, no identifying mark.

LO: We’re trying to keep it as open as possible for as long as possible, without labeling it, because that closes down the possibilities. So, it was sort of a default, referring to it by the street number [356 South Mission Road]. It was, like, what is this place? I don’t know. We’re a studio? Well, not exactly: It’s not going to be my studio starting January 20 because we’re going to invite anyone and everyone to come inside. But it was my studio. And so my experiment came down to how can you imbue a space with the feeling of a studio and show paintings where they were made, and does it make any difference in the viewing of them?

JT: It made me think a bit of that Daniel Buren essay, “The Function of the Studio,” and his notion of “the unspeakable compromise of the portable work of art.”1 The “unspeakable compromise” is that the work winds up in a different place than where it’s made, and that reinforces its commodity status.
It becomes divorced from the space of its production.

LO: I’ve thought about architecture and space and painting for a long time. There was a show I did in London in 1997 with Sadie Coles HQ that included a painting of a landscape. I got the gallerist to send me pictures of the space and there was a column. I put a trompe-l’oeil shadow of the column on the painting, as sort of an imprint, an anecdotal memory of that space where it was first shown. I’ve done a lot of paintings that were made to fit in particular architectural elements of spaces. And I’ve made a bunch of multiple panel pieces—like the 92 untitled Clock paintings (2007–12) that together add up to be one work of art. Does that make an it installation or an exhibition? But I realized with that type of work, you take the pressure off painting, and any one painting doesn’t really matter, which was great for me to do for a while, but at some point I just wanted to go back inside the formal idea of the rectangle. This discrete “portable work of art,” that’s what painting is. So I wanted to make an exhibition and make the painting. There is a ridiculously fraught tension that I think exists for anyone making paintings today, because we’re living in a time when people are making exhibitions and not discrete works of art.

SB: One thing that interested me was the experience of the opening. I spent some time in Ooga Booga, and then came in and saw the show, and then went outside to the reception. But all of it was grounded in you, the artist. It’s such a different experience to go to a gallery where it’s grounded in their choice, right? This had a different feel, which surprised me.

LO: Did you have that feeling at Mike Kelley’s thing at the Farley Building? Or did you have that feeling at Jason Rhoades’s thing?

JT: Or Donald Judd at Marfa?

SB: I was not a Donald Judd fan, but I went to Marfa, and it’s like, “holy shit!” This is what he wanted to do and he didn’t do it anywhere else, and this is great. “I wish I had known this a long time ago.” That’s what I felt.

Installation view of "12 Paintings by Laura Owens," 356 South Mission Road, Los Angeles, January 20, 2013.

Installation view of 12 Paintings by Laura Owens, 356 South Mission Road, Los Angeles, January 20, 2013. Image courtesy the artist, 356 South Mission Road, and Gavin Brown’s enterprise.

LO: I saw this amazing Monet at l’Orangerie in Paris. It’s in the round; it’s one of those panoramic paintings he made. I think they built the building for it, and the way the lighting works, it’s an experience, it’s durational, like a Turrell. You’re in there, and the painting reveals itself over 30 or 40 minutes. And the fact that your body is inhabiting the space of that painting in that way—maybe because it’s so abstract, or maybe because it’s a landscape and you are the figure—that kind of blew my mind.

JT: Well, I do think there’s a connection between artists that are commissioned to make works that fit into the architecture, like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, and these other more self-motivated projects.

SB: I was reminded, coming here versus going to some other big gallery space, that I’m always thinking of money. And the idea of commerce that I take with me through those doors is different than the idea of commerce in here. But I realize the art has to be for sale, right?

LO: The crazy thing about the art world, though, is it really makes explicit this weird public/private space. I can’t really think of any other space that’s like that, where truly the public is supposed to come, but it is a private commercial space.

JT: I think there’s maybe a little less interest in galleries being public spaces in Los Angeles today. In regard to the move to Hollywood, for instance, where galleries become increasingly separate, no longer clustered together and easy for someone to go from one gallery to another, that suggests that they’re not really interested, perhaps, in that kind of clientele anyway.

LO: Yeah, it’s interesting that Bergamot, which is probably the most democratic proposition, is kind of an awful place to show your art. Why is that?

JT: True. And then we could say, well, maybe the Hollywood move is a reaction to that, I don’t know, provincialism or something. The Hollywood galleries are setting themselves apart, separate buildings, further and further apart.

A dramatic reading of Rachel Kushner’s "The Flamethrowers," 356 South Mission Road, Los Angeles, April 18, 2013.

A dramatic reading of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, 356 South Mission Road, Los Angeles, April 18, 2013. Image courtesy Rachel Kushner, 356 South Mission Road, and Gavin Brown’s enterprise.

LO: Well, I guess it’s one of those things where you have to pick your tribe. Like, I’m going to pick the Thomas Duncan tribe, and I’ll be a part of that, but I won’t be a part of the Shaun Regen tribe. It’s just a big world, and there can be all these different tribal associations.

JT: But I’m interested in what you just said in regard to Bergamot, that it’s a democratic space. And I do feel that some of the more recent developments in terms of how art is experienced in this city have been undemocratic. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, necessarily; I’m just trying to imagine a different model. It’s like, we have our building, and then the rules, the laws, within this building can be democratic or not, right? And there’s no attempt—which, again, is perfectly fine—to deal with the surrounding buildings. For instance, the last time I drove down Grand, I saw it as the street of competing buildings. There’s no attempt to integrate; it’s the opposite. The Eli Broad Building, the MOCA Building, the Disney Building, they’re as different as possible, and each one of them is going to have a very different idea of art and its publics.

LO: The politics around downtown, I wouldn’t even know what to say about that. Fancy architects and money that’s meant to get real estate going. What looks like someone destroying another museum is actually someone building his own museum.

JT: But couldn’t one think about your space in relationship to the Broad building, as a counterpoint to it in some way? Eli Broad would be emblematic of a businessman or collector taking charge of the way that art is experienced in this city. It would be a very top-down kind of model. But then your project is also quite ambitious in terms of scale and also your programming. And, as you were saying, you’re allied with Gavin Brown. But really you’ve made all the choices as to where it happens, what’s going to be in it, how it’s going to be run, right?

SB: Even in terms of staff. You go into any gallery half the size of this room, and they have these enormous staffs, and it seems like you’re trying to operate on a very low-key basis.

LO: Yeah, low budget, like me. I want to extend the money, to have it circulate. I’m hoping to sell the paintings to fund the space, hoping that some of that money could go into bringing someone like Michael Clark into town to do dance. We’re hoping to do shows with other artists who don’t show so much here, or haven’t shown at all. We really want to show Sturtevant, a big Sturtevant work. I think Bruce Hainley has a book coming out about her, so it’d be really a great moment to celebrate her. It can be seen as a group effort in that way.

JT: I guess the question would be, did you conceive of this show and the experience of this space in response to something that’s perhaps missing in the current landscape of possibilities for art in Los Angeles?

LO: Maybe in terms of a feeling. I’m friends with these guys from Milwaukee—Chris Smith, Scott Reeder, and Tyson Reeder—and they’ve always had this team spirit, like, “We’re doing it together for ourselves.” The audience is the producers, and the producers are the audience. They do fashion shows where everyone’s making fashion and everyone’s the model, and it’s just fun. It’s all low budget, the spaces are cheap, and the work is extremely cheap, for what it is. So this, I think, affords an opportunity to take back the conversation, and make it about what really interests you.

JT: You’re taking the conversation back from where?

LO: Just from the conventional wisdom that says, “I’m an artist, I need to find a gallery,” or “I hope that LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] will offer me a show next year.” Why do I want to wait to do a show in Los Angeles until it works out for X, Y, or Z gallery to give me a show? I mean, you’re making work in your studio, and you realize you can just have a barbecue and people can come over and see what you finished, which happens all the time. It’s just doing that on a bigger scale.

JT: Yes, because those things do happen all the time, like at the Brewery, for instance.

LO: Or someone like Calvin Marcus, who’s done shows in his studio on Figueroa over the last couple of years where he invites, like, 15 people and gives them a theme. We did a cactus show, then a nude show, and now he’s thinking of doing a cadmium red show. It’s really a group of painters, so it’s very specific to his interests. Caitlin Lonegan and Spencer Lewis have had open studios. On the east side, there’s Night Gallery, Human Resources, Actual Size, and in one way or another, I feel, all these spaces are doing the same kind of thing. It’s just happening so seamlessly that you don’t even think about it, really.

SB: I like that sense of doing something on a limited budget. I did a talk with Bill Leavitt down at Cal State Long Beach last week, and we were talking about making art in the 1970s—and I’m fortunately or unfortunately old enough to have been doing that—and we were saying that back then you made art basically just to show it, so that other artists could look at it. That was the ambition of it, for better or worse, being involved in this conversation. There seemed to be less concern for moving up the career chain.

JT: This was the subject of a recent Diedrich Diederichsen talk about “our kind of crowd,” or our kind of art world, meaning a close-knit community of artists versus this different sort of art world where you’re wondering who everyone is.2 It’s become a super professionalized space with a lot of different job descriptions in it: there are dealers and collectors, advertising people, PR people. That whole globalized art professional network, that wouldn’t be the “our kind of crowd” that Diederichsen is talking about. So, yes, you have these two obviously very different kinds of spaces, and wouldn’t you say this one is more in between?

LO: It could be. It could turn into one or the other, too. I don’t know yet.

SB: This space seems different from Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s A Voyage of Growth and Discovery in Eagle Rock in 2010 or Jason Rhoades’s Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé at his studio in Los Angeles in 2006. Those didn’t encompass this idea of a multi-year program, like you are doing here. This is a different way of thinking from “I’m just going to rent this space to put this stuff up, to do this thing, and then close it down.”

LO: That was the original idea, that’s where it started, but it grew out of that. It might be a brain problem I have where I can’t stop thinking of more ideas, and I keep going, well, we could this, and then we could do that, and I literally have been told I need to stop. I over-schedule.
I think of something like the Scrabble Sundays: what if you open the space up on a Sunday for playing Scrabble? It’s a kind of aimlessness that allows for another possibility. Maybe there’s a conversation that happens between two people who might not have met had they not come to the space because they have an interest in art or Ooga Booga or Scrabble; maybe a third thing gets produced.

JT: Again, I do think that there are a lot of these independent spaces that would do something like this, but they wouldn’t be doing it in relation to your paintings. You’re doing something so casual right next to something more serious.

LO: So you’re saying because people know my paintings in a more giant, widespread, to-be-seen-in-a-museum way, it makes it different to do that here?

SB: Yes. It draws a different kind of audience than somebody just out of grad school renting a warehouse and opening up and saying, “Oh, come over and see my paintings.”

LO: Maybe it’s me having a delusion and wanting to go back to grad school? And being like, god, I wish I was 25 again.

JT: So it begins with the perception that this space that you’re starting is somehow lacking in the landscape of Los Angeles, because otherwise you’d have gone with an existing space.

LO: The first reason is I hadn’t done a show here in so long; I hadn’t shown in Los Angeles for 10 years, and I felt like I was not a part of the conversation here. I am invested in making paintings, and the conversation about painting is really limited. I really do have ideas about painting, and I wanted people to look at them. So out of that it grew. I like all these other artists, and wouldn’t it be great to show them too? Why not just say yes to everything and start doing it all?

JT: And it’s organic because some of these newer paintings, as you were saying, come out of these collaborative situations, right? Working with Ooga Booga on a series of works that feed into these.

LO: Totally, and that’s how I run the studio with the assistants. I’ll say, “What do you guys think?” And they’ll say, “Well, I think we should try this.” And they’ll work on that for, like, four days. And then I’ll say, “That looks really shitty. Let’s try something else.” So it’s allowing a space where they can influence me, and I can allow them to experiment, like a laboratory, for a really long time with no actual painting getting made. And then afterwards, I’ll set up all the circumstances to make that painting in a very condensed amount of time, to sort of compress the making of it.

Kids’ Day, 356 South Mission Road, Los Angeles, March 16, 2013.

Kids’ Day, 356 South Mission Road, Los Angeles, March 16, 2013. Image courtesy of 356 South Mission Road and Gavin Brown’s enterprise.

JT: All of these things that you’re planning and thinking about having happen here, they are in one way or another related to your studio process and your experience in Los Angeles, working within this range of collaborations. You’re folding the studio into the show space, but also choosing a studio and exhibition space that could handle paintings of a certain size, which is probably the first priority that you had, right, to make paintings this big?

LO: Well, I didn’t know that until I saw the space. I had made large paintings before, and thought, why not go for it in a really emphatic way? I thought about this idea of the gesture for a really long time and what it means to be a woman artist and to not shy away from that—how do you do that? The word “emphatic” just kept coming up to me.

JT: There’s something emphatic also about the number of these paintings and how close they are together. That almost works against their scale.

LO: Yeah, that was all part of the tension between exhibition and painting. It is both, but it can’t be both, so it’s like this impossibility. You want it to work, and you do certain things with spacing or scale, how they’re all the same size, or how this wall works with that wall. But in the end it’s trying to just emphasize that tension and make it explicit, that is what I was thinking about. It’s that portable work of art thing you brought up. Painting implicitly says, “I am all right in here,” which is the opposite of your body moving through the space in an exhibition. But it’s both, because we’re past that point of the easel painting. So there’s a paradox.


  1. Daniel Buren, “The Function of the Studio,” trans. Thomas Repensek, October 10 (Fall 1979), 51–59. The original French essay “Fonction de l’Atelier” dates from 1971, but it was first published in English in October in 1979.
  2. Diedrich Diederichsen, “Our Kind of Venue—Subcultures, Institutions, and Historiography,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 8, 2012.