Open your browser and head to why11.com. You will now be looking at an unassuming landing page and a drop-down menu instructing you to ‘Select a painting’. You have 45 options (numbered somewhat erratically), each of which will summon a painting from Laura Owens’s latest show at Sadie Coles HQ and an mp3 relating to the piece. Well, you may get that; you may get a fragment from George Harrison’s 1968 album Wonderwall Music. (I have no idea why.) The clips rotate, meaning the combination of audio and image is not always the same but, after some time, you may find yourself listening to a recording of Owens herself – the closest thing we have to a press release. ‘This location was designed for you to train your eyes and senses,’ she says, her tone distant. ‘It should be easy to find the art.’
I have a sneaking suspicion that she’s talking about Sadie Coles’s Kingly Street gallery, where 44 new paintings of varying sizes (all Untitled, 2016) are spread across the walls of the expansive first-floor space. There is a charming, child-like inventiveness to these works, in execution and intent: proto-Picasso faces struggle to contain their impasto features; a blue bicycle wheel sits flush against a mauve linen, its rim littered with hearts; there are four large-scale colouring-book works, which depict a cartoon kettle, a cluster of stars, a happy crustacean family and a pirate ship. (Owens never stays within the lines.)
Superficially, at least, these works hew provocatively close to that ever-popular criticism of contemporary art: ‘My five-year-old could have done that.’ For Owens, however, as for Henri Matisse (an influence, referenced in one of the audio clips), easiness is hard-earned. (The kitschiness puts me in mind of Dolly Parton, who memorably explained: ‘It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.’) Peppered amongst these celebrations of sloppiness are a number of paintings that have more evidently been developed using computer software and which are characterized by thick squiggles à la Photoshop brush tool. Here, expressionist mark-making has been refined, passed through a system, becoming standardized and multipliable. Other elements reinforce this transition: repeating systems of grids and charts, austere stencilled phrases (‘Restored to her Master’) and ornate networks of ships, plants and piggy banks. In one corner of the gallery, a slapdash still life of a candlestick, mug and what might be a lime (perspective here: non-existent) hangs alongside two halftone screen prints, each clean, clinical and stamped with its own Adobe RGB (1998) colour space profile.
When Owens says, ‘It should be easy to find the art’, she doesn’t aim to patronize. (We’re all friends here.) Rather, she is drawing attention to the distinction we make between the gallery and the world beyond. Press a buzzer, avoid a receptionist, enter a white-walled space: that transition tells us to look, to study a meticulous digital collage as carefully as a puerile doodle. Owens, of course, recognizes this and takes advantage accordingly. (A confession: I spent an embarrassingly long time gazing at colouring books as ‘research’ for this review – and listening George Harrison records, for that matter.) Nowhere is this exploitation of heightened attention more apparent than in the gallery’s smaller second room where, on a table littered with emoji sculptures and a banal video of a snail, is a series of picture books, one of which contains – amongst other things – images from spam emails. Thanks to the internet, we encounter such imagery on a daily basis and, thanks to the internet, we no longer register it. To interact with it within these pixelated tomes, however, you must don a pair of white cotton gloves that are closely guarded by a lurking invigilator. Why? Because here images demand your full respect. This location was designed for you to train your eyes.