Treasure trove

By GREG COOK  |  September 7, 2010

Alison Owen’s “Divisibility,” which is billed as the Providence artist’s first solo show in New England, redecorates the Bell Gallery lobby through October 31. Owen’s wall installation, in which she turned dirty mop water into a rococo “wallpaper” design, was the standout piece in last February’s “2010 RISCA Fellowship Exhibition” in Warren.

Here she paints walls with a gray grid and a “wallpaper” pattern of circles, leaves, and diamonds on the edge of coalescing or falling apart. Atop the pattern on one wall, she hangs plasterboard panels featuring similar patterns, lines of thread, and bits of molding; on another wall, she mounts two “canvases” with the “wallpaper” designs creeping onto parts of their transparent or semi-transparent surfaces.

Owen’s work is powered by both the beauty and optical illusions of the patterns. Her designs here appear silvery from a distance, but up close you find that they’re lint and dust and dirty mop water. This calls forth questions about relationships between beauty and class, between home decorating and housework. Owen’s technique also echoes ’60s and ’70s art — Pattern and Decoration (over the past decade locals like Xander Marro and Pippi Zornoza have continued in this tradition), Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s feminist mopping performances, Sol Lewitt’s Conceptualism, and Robert Ryman’s Minimalism.

All very interesting, but this design, which seems to be channeling the spareness of Philip Johnson's Modernist building, doesn’t sizzle. What made her Warren installation a showstopper was its lushness — of pattern, of illusion, of ideas. Owen is poised for a breakout performance, but paring things down  here, she saps some of her art’s allure.

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