New To Me: Frank Owen


Frank Owen, Bend Series: Spirit Sail, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 40 × 50 in.

The great thing about having strong interests is that there is always something new to learn. Your passion could be model trains, rock climbing, mechanical engineering, quilting, dog breeding: It doesn't matter; all are equally rich. Case in point: I've been following and learning about the visual arts for more than 30 years, yet somehow I had never heard of the painter of abstracts Frank Owen, whose profile was at one time high enough to have brought him into association with the legendary gallerist Leo Castelli. Readers of Art & Argument might recall that I really love expressive minimalism, as practiced, for example, by Judith Trepp. But dense, exuberant work like Owens' can be a real delight. They are like Rauschenbergs without the concrete pop-culture imagery.

I encountered him just last week in an engaging interview conducted by the artist Alexi Worth (also new to me) at the first-rate arts website The Brooklyn Rail. I find that articles, reviews, and interviews conducted by fellow artists are frequently more accessible than pieces written by professional critics, who might be tempted to prove their MFA bona fides with dense post-modern mannerisms. One reason for the relative accessibility, at least for me, is that artist peers often like to talk about process and technique. Here's a great example excerpted from the Owen-Worth interview. Note: the images shown in this blog post are from Owens' current show at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in NYC.
Rail: Could you describe your current process? How do your paintings get made?
Owen: I’m a laminator. I begin by making abstract collage elements on coated paper. I’ve taken to calling them “skins.” I make dozens more than I’ll ever use.

Rail: Hundreds of them. And they’re all different. Stripes, painterly lariats, glyphs, plaids, and these new folded ones, which look like X-rays of paper airplanes. They’re demonstrations of the incredible variety of things that can happen with paint. Your artisanal ingenuity seems to be pretty limitless.

Owen: I’m a child of the acrylic age. I was talking to Mark Golden [of Golden Acrylic Paints], a few weeks ago and he asked me to conduct a workshop. But I borrowed a line from Barnett Newman: “Artists have secrets because they have earned them.”

Rail: But maybe we can talk about one fairly simple example: the striped skins. Some of them are almost barcode patterns in color. They are made with customized squeegies. I am looking at a whole bucket of those squeegies. I imagine a young painter could make a pretty interesting début show—by just borrowing that bucket.

Owen: The squeegies are notched in various ways. And as you run a notched squeegee across wet paint, you can hold it straight, or you can shimmy it. And then I have new squeegees that are flexible—a whole different set of possibilities. I’ve always been a big believer in tools. Rail: Once you have enough skins, what happens? Owen: I begin to peel them off the poly, and I place them, compose them. But the whole process is front-to-back. It’s the opposite of the conventional way of layering an image. The first skins I lay down will appear as the front layer of the painting.

Rail: So in a sense you are working both backwards and blind. You can’t really see what you are doing.

Owen: I have to rely on my memory. I always say that when I get Alzheimer’s my paintings are going to get really interesting. But yes, it’s true, the paintings are ninety percent complete before I actually see them. Sometimes when that happens, there’s a moment of triumph, sometimes gut-sinking dismay.
Frank Owen, Bend Series: Spirit Sail, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 40 × 50 in.

Frank Owen, Bend Series: Ring, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 40 × 50 in.


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