an interview with Barbara Owen
In my old apartment my desk sat in front of a window. I’d prop up pictures on the pane, or tape papers to the glass. A message that once hovered there: “Write, fucker, write!” Scrawled in marker on a ripped-off square of rough watercolor paper, it was my version of a motivational poster.
Artist Barbara Owen’s Pawtucket studio recently sported some similar signage, but unlike my brute badge of inspiration, Owen’s was more of the ‘help wanted’ variety. “I need a guru,” it read. Against pandemicky worries, Owen hoped to find some grounding for not only her art but her wellbeing.
How does an artist who often surfs a gleaming plane of color, grids and lines respond to something as abject as the Covid era? I was curious—then, curiouser, when Owen told me in January her new show I Need A Guru dealt with some of these themes.
Last December, exhibition network Tiger Strikes Asteroid invited Owen to show some new work in gallery boxes across Asheville, North Carolina. Taking the title from her faux classified, Owen imagined the exhibit a kind of pilgrimage: people moving from box to box, piece to piece, a narrative joining along the way.
Narrative is pretty new in Owen’s work, as she explains in our interview below. But story might also be the newest manifestation of something Owen has long entertained: a deep attention toward repetition. Several works in Guru blend sculpture and painting in Owen’s characteristic way, while others see her tackling (or rather thumbing) clay, leaving obvious evidence of the artist’s touch.
“That a form itself can convey feeling is what drives my work,” Owen says.
Form, shape and color can give their own answers when explicitness refuses—or they can at least activate something in us. Owen has come to accept her practice as its own kind of expertise. Who needs an expert when you might squeeze the answer, in your own hands?
Let’s talk early quarantine. Like, March 2020. What were you thinking/feeling at this time? Based on your exhibit statement, I suspect my sentiments are pretty similar to yours, but I’m interested in hearing your recap of things.
March. We hunkered down. It seemed to stretch on forever - that first month. Little did we know how tragic and saddening the year(s) would be. In March, I was in shock, hardly sleeping, trying to figure out how to deal with the stress I was feeling, and by April, a need for record-keeping, if not precisely art, kicked in.
“April is the cruelest month,” the first line in T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land,” kept coming up for me. It is a poem about the promise of spring, renewal, and growth, but tinged with the inevitability of death. It is about hope and disappointment, a deep depression in the face of a return to green.
I've worn a Fitbit for years and am fascinated with tracking how I sleep, my heart rate, how much exercise I get, etc. Every day that April, I kept notes on my body alongside covid infection rates and deaths in Rhode Island, New York, and nationally.
[Owen sent over a word doc with her daily statistics from April 2020.]
I’m a real nerd when it comes to stats, so thanks for sharing your April records. It’s fascinating to see what we as individuals deemed worth recording at the start of the pandemic. I’ve long had a neurotic disposition toward time and so my own record keeping usually substitutes for a more meaningful activity I could’ve been doing. Plus there’s always the creeping reminder that quantifying can be as much about emotion as it is math. I wonder if any of this resonates with your experience. Was the stress and uncertainty of early quarantine alleviated or at least soothed by record keeping? Did you feel you were keeping records to keep yourself from thinking or doing other things?
That's it, you said it - keeping a record gave me something to do, kept my mind busy and it felt important - as you say quantifying can be as much about emotion as it is math. This sounds self-absorbed but I could only look at how it affected me - (in my safe bubble in a small Rhode Island town) - watching the news and hearing from friends in New York experiencing lockdown, the constant sounds of ambulance sirens, the fear of getting sick and dying alone, there was so much unknown - It seemed unreal.
Keeping a daily record became a way to make connections between my body, statistics, the weather, the inevitable coming of spring (life goes on): we were living “The Waste Land.”
The first three lines of the poem read “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” This poem was written after WWI, mourning the enormous tragedy of modern warfare, the incredible amount of people who died and the chaos that ensued afterward.
And that poem (if I’m remembering my introductory lit class correctly…) was also one of the defining works of modernism. So it announced a new paradigm while mourning an old world. I can completely empathize with that being the overarching mood for March/April 2020; it felt life changing in a truly global way.
Right - and it just kept coming up for me - all the sadness and despair. But I have to add that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is my favorite Eliot poem.
Alongside your stat keeping, you were making another kind of record by squeezing clay. When did you re-enter your studio?
My studio is not in my home, and by April, I was going back a few days a week. My teenage son was in school in the living room, and my husband set up his office on the third floor - I was lucky to have a separate space of my own.
Going back felt indulgent but necessary. Indulgent because I didn't feel like the world needed another piece of art from me. If I was going to make something, it had to fit into this new psychological, highly charged emotional landscape.
I happened to have a bag of clay sitting in my studio; that's when I started making the clay shapes. Every day by squeezing a fistful of clay, I distilled my practice into an elementary shape and action. The results are the negative shape of my clenched hand. The shapes are beautiful but also a bit menacing - they could be weapons. These clay shapes are paired with the daily stats making the piece April is the Cruelest Month.
When did you begin to transition from this elemental gesture to something more involved?
Making those clay pieces inspired the work for I need a guru. I was in that area between ideas and materials, where the thinking “through” gets exciting. The experience of Covid left me feeling that something was missing in my art practice. When I returned to the studio, I made a little plaque that said “I need a guru” to amuse myself and lighten my existential dread. It also was a reminder that creating art was my way of finding clarification and obtaining a kind of enlightenment.
I need a guru is about telling a story with objects. I was making each object in relation to the other, building a narrative. This felt like a breakthrough.
Ah, the narrative element intrigues me. Your recent series of collages, Little narratives, was made around the same time I’m guessing? How did these two bodies of work interact with or inform one another (if at all)?
Little Narratives preceded I need a guru. They are similar in that they both employ multiple objects to tell a story; proximity and juxtaposition being essential. Little Narratives are pretty compact while I need a guru is expansive, long-winded; both touch on my tendency to work repetitively.1 I am making them as installations.
I had been thinking about “I need a guru” since making the plaque that I hung in my studio. In December 2021 I was invited by Tiger Strikes Asteroid in North Carolina to put work in their five “gallery boxes” scattered within a neighborhood in Asheville. These boxes were made during the pandemic as a way to get art to the community. There is a great article on the blog “Ashville Made” about the group of artists who made them.
The boxes are small - about 21 inches square with 3 sides of glass and one back wall painted white. Immediately I envisioned pairing objects, one on the back wall in conversation with one standing. I imagined the visitors walking from one box to the next – like a pilgrimage! This was the perfect opportunity to show that work.
But back to your question - both bodies of work (Little Narratives and I need a guru) share the idea that more than one material or object within a work of art is necessary to tell a particular story, using collage to juxtapose one image or material against another, prompting memories, thoughts, and feelings.
Each object (or photo or material) is dependent on the other– this is the strength of installation as a genre. Unlike a single painting or sculpture, an installation has more room to unfold and to engage the viewer.
I like this idea of bodies of work being ‘installations,’ since it also considers the artworks’ eventual presentation and sharing with others.
It’s not that different from a “series” (and I think that’s what helped the shift in my perspective/approach). Historically I’ve found it necessary to work in series to illustrate an idea (for instance, the cut paper pieces where the “drawn line” becomes a 3-dimensional object). Each piece in that series confirmed the statement that drawing exists as something physical, both in execution and finished product. By making many, the idea would be confirmed, like: “Here’s one – Oh that didn’t speak to you? Well how about this one?” Finally, I’m hoping a viewer gets beyond the design to understand the concept.
I am emphasizing a process through repetition, the process being the story of the form. My undergrad education was steeped in formalism, focusing on how it was made and what it looked like. That a form itself can convey feeling is what drives my work.
But there is something to repetition that has nagged me, and it recently hit me that repetition has been my attempt at narrative! I want to be more expansive in my work, exploring narrative while still using subtlety and nuance that abstraction does so well. So, at this point, I have one foot in formalist ideas and the other in narrative.
The idea of abstract objects relaying a story sounds like a fun challenge to untangle–that’s when it gets exciting, as you say, because material is no longer a loner but a conspirator with story. And you’re an artist who’s always considerate of her materials.
The meaning behind any material and its use is valuable, especially in abstraction. I think the most exciting Art is grounded in material and social contexts. The artwork Strange Fruit, made by Zoe Leonard, is a good example. Representing the impermanence of life, it is a “meditation on death” and was created over five years during the height of the AIDS crisis. Strange Fruit consists of multitudes of dry and shriveled skins of oranges, bananas, grapefruits, lemons, and avocados scattered on the floor. The insides of the fruits have been emptied, consumed, and what remains is stitched back together with thread. A few loose strings trail out from random pieces, while some still have the threaded needle attached, unfinished in their task of repair. The lemon or the orange goes through an “ordeal of expression.”2 Strange Fruit presents an intellectual and emotional complex in that it proposes multiple connecting and diverse parts/ideas in one piece. I admire that piece for its complexity and simplicity - it's just fruit.
I hadn’t heard of Leonard’s work but it sounds powerful. As do your statements on material’s necessity for expression. I think sometimes there’s a tendency to devalue the abstract as politically gutless or whatever, but that seems limited. What are your thoughts on this? Do you ever feel some type of way about working with abstraction in a time when art(making) feels especially political? Are there any materials or approaches that you feel are especially suited to relaying an important message?
Interesting! That question is in the air. ‘Is abstraction valid in the highly politicized atmosphere we are in now?’ (Short answer is Yes, maybe more than we understand). But like many artists I’ve found myself interpreting that question in a very dichotomic way – as in, if anything is to be made, it should be political, there is no room for pretty pictures. I agree that political work is critical - but not every artist can make art that way. This was/is at the root of my existential crisis as an artist- what is my orange?
Several things have given me pause while mulling over this question. One is a recent episode of "Dialogues: The David Zwirner Podcast" with Jed Perl and Joshua Cohen, who talk about this very thing: "Does art have to be political to be important right now?" Perl, an art critic, just published the book Authority and Freedom: Defense of the Arts. The other pause is the discovery of the book The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting, 1890 -1985. It positions the legacy of abstraction in a different light or maybe a light I had moved past and discarded. Get this book - or when I am done I will lend it to you.
Reading this book, I thought back to why I was so attracted to studying art (at Bennington College), and what those first experiences were like for me. At eighteen, I was applying paint to canvas or plaster to wood with no preconceived ideas of what "Art" was. I was utterly naïve, a kid from Maine. In those first years, I made work that sprang from emotion, personality, intuition, and a kind of spirituality - in that it was an exciting journey into the unknown. At that time I was less aware/concerned with conceptual art and politics as I was of formalism and process-oriented art making.
So, in a way, I need a guru revisits a time of not knowing and questioning, literally and figuratively.
You asked if there are any materials that I feel are suited to communicating an important message. From our conversations over the years, I know that we share an interest in art that combines text and images and the diaristic note-keeping of the everyday (newspapers, headlines, grocery lists, pics we take on our phones, social media, etc.). Those are materials I continue to engage with - there is a lot there for me -where I can use my powers of emotion, personality, and intuition.
Yeah, there’s a lot of power in those everyday materials, for sure! Sometimes I feel artists undervalue the everyday dimensions of aesthetic experience, amateurs and veterans both. I feel some artists don’t even realize their want to abandon the vernacular for something ostensibly more ‘profound.’ And yet the most base things can be epiphanies. As you said about Leonard's oranges, they're just fruit.
But to backtrack a bit: how did your usual materials react to the addition of narrative? What new techniques or methods did this series prompt you toward?
When I started using paper mache in the Little Narrative pieces that have a photo or a video embedded, I was excited by the fact that paper is mashed up, reformed into something solid, becoming the structure that holds the video or photo, rather than being written on. But I am not sure that metaphor comes through in those pieces – nevertheless, it became a process metaphor for me.
What I do think comes through is the evidence of my hand – one can see the finger marks, shaping the paper mache into an object. While I was building up the paper mache into screen-like shapes, I thought of how our fingers do a kind of dance on the surface of our phones, and if that was recorded it would look like a tangled mess of lines and dots.
For one of the pieces in I need a guru, I continued that texture left by my fingertips shaping the clay. I think there is something really beautiful in the process and the outcome. For me it implies that needing a guru was like needing an art practice.
And how did narrative and material supply a way out of the pandemic’s confusion? Did they (or the resulting art) help you to reevaluate or reaffirm your self-concept as an artist (or even person)?
Whoa, I think so. I am definitely interested in the connections between perception and consciousness, idealism and reality, and our attempts to represent them. I keep hearing a version of this phrase - I don’t know what I’m searching for until I start searching. Maybe it has to do with getting knocked off-center the way Covid has had the ability to do; it’s scary but maybe illuminated that a change is possible! The experience is begging you to reevaluate what you know. Or maybe that I will never be satisfied.
I am definitely inspired by thinking through what meanings are attached to certain materials. This has helped generate ideas for painting, drawing, and installation. I am going to continue/ add on/ develop the Guru series. I think a short video is in the future.
Artist is a fundamentally curious disposition. It’s about “What can I make?” rather than “Who am I?” The latter question gets boring after a while. I admire your constant searching, probably because, creatively, I’m the same way. Finally, speaking of painting, after all these explorations of installation, material and technique–do you ever see a return to the canvas (or wood panel, fiberboard, whatever) in your future?
(Chuckle) I am dying to paint on canvas! I have soooo many ideas! About a year ago I stretched some canvases and they are still propped up on the wall unmarked, beautiful white gessoed rectangles. So there's that. I’ll keep you posted.
I am currently working to finish six Hard Edge Fem (Portals) that I am happy with. Also a new Little narrative piece. I am excited about this piece - it is made up of several panels and incorporates objects, not just photos - I am taking my time, there is no hurry. That's my focus this spring.
(1) "Layers and repetition provide the conceptual basis representing stages and evidence of time, experience, meaning, or multiple identities of the self." - from Owen's artist statement on her 'cut paper' series
(2) l'Orange, poem by Francis Ponge
I need a guru, a solo exhibit by Barbara Owen, was on view from January 21 through March 26, 2022, across Tiger Strikes Asteroid's Gallery Boxes in Asheville, North Carolina. You can find a list of work and read more about the exhibit on TSA's website.
P.s. - Owen's favorite bit of Eliot's "Love Song"
…In the room the women come and go/
Talking of Michelangelo./
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,/
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes/
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,/
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,/
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,/
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,/
And seeing that it was a soft October night,/
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.