by Katelyn Eichwald
In 20 Paintings by Laura Owens, a new chapbook from Poor Claudia featuring broad white spaces and no visible paint at all, Elaine Bleakney describes a painting by Matisse, a grid of white flowers, the floor rising up and falling forward on top of us. Matisse loved reds and oranges, was not afraid of color, ate color like bowls of fruit, overripe peaches. He also painted his paintings as objects in the backgrounds of other paintings, like Laura Owens’ paintings in this text, except here, Owens’ paintings are so far in the background that we cannot see them. “Nobody needs to be seen so often and never here,” Bleakney writes, and she makes good on this claim, showing us nothing but giving us plenty.
Bleakney points at Owens and others — Inger Christensen, Frank Ocean, Pavement, Hart Crane — and calls them over, pulling them into her arms together. Maybe they’ll like each other, maybe they’ll even fall in love? “And then something like a map opens–a list of names.” She also calls out colors, and they collect on a palette as the reader moves through the piece. “I make my orange in a place where my idea of orange is razed,” she writes. She might be saying: I mix my colors in a place where colors do not exist as ideas, where they have no names. “Razed” is perfect because fire is orange. It burns itself down. “The colors aren’t the same today as the day before,” she writes in a poem early in the collection, and anyone who has been to the mountains knows this is true. “VOTE, the house on Pearson worries in lovesick red,” she writes later, and red becomes my twisted gut on election night in 2008 or 2012, a bright red gumball stuck in my throat, the color of emergency.
The afterimage of Owens’ work hovers over each page. “I mistake you for how you make a social out of color,” Bleakney writes, suggesting that Owens’ paintings’ color/cover story of social love and connection (the detritus from a child’s birthday party in the late 80s) is not the same as a connection with Owens herself. Like, “I mistake you for what you have painted.” Like, “I mistake you for your own foot, which appears whole and healthy.” Or, “I mistake you for your mother, who has died.” I’m reminded of the almost-poems tagged on the walls of the alley beside my apartment. The taggers around here are sweet, young. Skool Sux. A lavender smiley face with a big fat tongue. (“Summer’s rule: stay too long.”)
Bleakney identifies two kinds of color. The first kind is color-as-name, a celebrity emptying her purse (Miu Miu sunglasses in Yellow Havana), bright paint chip colors and their precise percentages, Owens’ photoshop sketches. The second kind is color as a symbol for the real, “in living color,” closer to a vein. “A belief about body and being one’s own for life in color, suffering, gaze, time,” Bleakney writes. Neither of these definitions are enough. “What would you call the colors between trees?” she asks. “Stay awhile.” When we do, we are rewarded with poems as vivid as an armful of oranges and as difficult to hold onto. I remember the color of a Laura Owens painting in Artforum as it lay, torn, on my red rug: hot pink, the same color as the cover of this chapbook. Frank O’Hara wrote, of a de Kooning painting, “I think it has an orange bed in it, more than the ear can hold.” O’Hara didn’t have the de Kooning painting printed beside his poem, and neither does Bleakney, thank God. If she gave me one more sweet orange I would surely drop them all.