Ronald Ownbey: An Unfurling of Avatars
By Peter Frank
The graphic impulse in contemporary art – especially American, and notably Californian, contemporary art – is far more pervasive than is acknowledged. The painterly tradition enshrined by Abstract Expressionism and the countervailing tradition of the image (lately manifested in the Pop genre but long part of America’s highly narrative visual discourse) would seem to define the alpha and omega of artistic practice in this country, even in three dimensions. But line – that is, linear rather than coloristic or gestural or even pictorial thinking – may be the fundament of artmaking here, providing the artist with an armature for brushstroke and image alike. The recent re-examination of artistic practice in postwar southern California has slowly revealed this, exposing linearity as the condition connecting hard-edge painting, for instance, to the brittle expressionism being practiced at exactly the same time.
One can muse upon the reasons line features so prominently in the artistic practice of southern California. There may, however, be something in the water – or the light. Ronald Ownbey, born and bred in Los Angeles and the Sierra Nevada mountains, has displayed, even relied on, a graphic emphasis in his art from his very earliest output. Whether painting or etching, sketching or working digitally, Ownbey doesn’t simply rely on line, he thinks with it. It provides not simply the bones of his artwork, but its sinew and its skin.
His allegiance to line allows Ownbey to oscillate gracefully and logically between discrete visual languages, producing surrealist fantasy at one turn, geometric structure at another, expressionist brio at yet another – and, in particular, seamless blends of various modernist idioms. Ownbey’s oeuvre embraces the breadth of modern artistic practice not because this veteran artist cannot decide what kind of style to practice, but, rather, because his automatic reliance on line allows him to practice, and conflate, all the styles available in the modernist canon – a native eclecticism that does not simply answer to the “anti-style” of post-modernism but accepts a “pan-style” that descends naturally out of the modernist dialectic. We have come, after all, to understand sensibility rather than style as artistic distinction, and Ownbey’s sensibility is graphic.
Ownbey began his college-level studies under the implicit sway of the local group of landscape painters, watercolor-intensive renderers of southern California who had updated turn-of-the-century plein-air practices with the mild stylizations of “American scene” realism. Studying first at Mt. San Antonio College and then at Otis College of Art and Design, Ownbey found at least something of his own voice in this style, favoring oil over watercolor, employing a much darker palette, and relying not on local environs as his subject matter but the land- and cityscapes – some of them grimly postwar – he had encountered as a GI stationed in Germany. The predominance of narrow, jagged forms and sharply defined edges in these paintings gives early indication of Ownbey’s linear bias – as do the many drawings he generated at the same time, figure studies and fanciful landscapes fairly exploding with linear intricacy.
Ownbey evolved from here into a more grounded, almost “traditional” expressionist, not least in his printmaking (where he emulated both the original German expressionists and the more fluid humanism of then-contemporary American printmakers like Leonard Baskin and Mauricio Lasansky), but also in his more advanced painting. Indeed, Ownbey’s work on canvas from this period, culminating in the large tableau That Day, reveals his awareness of prevailing figurative trends in southern California painting and printmaking, whether the fanciful quasi-surrealism of print-oriented artists such as June Wayne and Leonard Edmondson or, closer to home, the angular, and anguished, expressionism of figural painters like Rico Lebrun and Howard Warshaw or more abstract ones such as Hans Burkhardt.
Ownbey cites none of these figures as direct influences; he was clearly responding to “something in the air” in and around Los Angeles, practices he absorbed through his teachers and through visits to local exhibitions. He was speaking the language(s) of his time and place. And soon he found his own voice in it. After he left school Ownbey’s painting style became more and more sinuous and abstract, while in his work on paper his attention turned to stylized and even grotesque heads and faces.
At the end of the 1960s, this increasingly hallucinatory two-pronged approach coalesced into what can be called Ownbey’s first entirely personal style. It is a style very much of its time, symbol-laden, metamorphic, slyly Pop, and nothing if not psychedelic. It responds not to other artistic models, however, but to the aesthetic tenor of the times itself. It provided Ownbey an outlet for his gathered knowledge of disparate cultures; it allowed him to “play” with organic forms that suggested physical conditions (e.g. granularity, bubbling, flux) without fixing him to any narrative teleology; it provided him a way of working in many different media and formats, including etched metals and wood sculpture; and it gave his graphic sensibility full rein to mediate between pure form and provocative referent. For the first time, Ownbey had full command over the breadth of his sources – and talents.
Ownbey has not lost that command since, and time and time again proves himself adept at graceful stylistic synthesis – particularly as he chooses stylistic earmarks to synthesize. He is as likely to zoom in on particular approaches and/or particular cultural citations in particular bodies of work. This has allowed him to work through both formal and psychological issues, especially during times of great personal stress and change. That said, Ownbey does not regard his artistic production as a result of or repository for personal expression so much as a manifestation of his states of mind. That Day, for instance, was a meditation on the John F. Kennedy assassination, and the tangle of symbols comprising so many of his drawings from the 1980s mirror the tumult of his search for personal identity without referencing what he found in, and what resulted from, that search.
Ownbey’s graphic orientation and deft, ready eclecticism allowed him to embrace relatively early the potential of the personal computer. The flat, vivid palette afforded by early graphic programs resembled the quasi-hard-edge approach to color he had taken since his psychedelic period, and, just as he did in those alternately heraldic and effervescent images, he was able to manipulate composition to infer depth, movement, and even atmosphere. Conversely, his concentration on computer generation since the 1990s has influenced Ownbey’s hand-painted work; even his most recent surge in easel painting evinces the assured choreographing of what can seem alternately like sub-atomic particles and celestial bodies, at the same time elegant designs and dynamic eruptions.
You might call all of Ronald Ownbey’s mature work an unfurling of avatars. The avatars are not imagistic, however, so much as they are purely pictorial. His pictures are invested not with meaning(s), but with presence(s), shapes whose references are as various and manifold as the artistic languages Ownbey speaks. The “graphic condition” Ownbey manifests time and again provides him a flexible vessel to navigate the possibilities of visual invention. In the American tradition—particularly the Pacific (and Asian-tinged) tradition of formalized imagination – Ownbey’s oeuvre has provided a place for images to emerge lucidly while staying elusive.
Los Angeles - June 2013
Peter Frank is an art critic, curator and poet who lives and works in Los Angles. He is art critic for the Huffington Post and Associate Editor for Fabrik Magazine. Peter was born in 1950 in New York, where he was art critic for the Village Voice and the Soho Weekly News. Peter was a long time critic for the LA Weekly, and was senior curator at the Riverside Art Museum. Peter received his B.A and M.A. degrees in art history from Columbia University and has organized numerous theme and survey shows for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and other venues.