Flat Earth: Alison OwenAugust 17, 2018
Before Alison Owen begins a new project, she spends quality time in a new environment, observing the architecture, discarded scraps, and natural elements to draw closer to the spirit of the place. With this information, Owen gathers physical and conceptual fodder for new challenges in her studio practice. “I’m interested in bringing the periphery to the center- taking all of the paper scraps, paint rags, and to-do lists from studio spaces and domestic spaces, and recirculating them in the world as a way to tell a new story about our experiences,” Owen says of the way she approaches the process of each new challenge. This year, Alison Owen set that challenge on January 1st, 2018. “I set myself the project of making a vase per day for the year, and that can be one of clay or fabric construction, a collage, a painting, or a drawing. I am interested in the ways still life painting, archaeological excavation, archives, and inventories depict the lives of objects.” This ambitious task brought Owen to the Women’s Studio Workshop for a six week Studio Workspace Residency in April to work on this noteworthy goal.
Although a multi-disciplinary artist at heart, Owen used her residency to construct a series of slab-built ceramic pieces informed by a deep interest in the confluence of archeology and function. Inspired by the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, Owen’s vessels resemble the monochromatic vases and bottles seen in Morandi’s simple still-lifes. Using flat sheets of unfired clay, Owen patterns out the vessel walls with an sharp blade and shapes the separate pieces together to create pitchers and vases. Although technically functional, Owen leaves only a small interior space between the walls. Her vessels challenge the viewer to consider what belongs in these empty spaces, and how often we judge the interior of an object by the exterior alone. From the side, each pitcher or vase appears warped and flatter than a common carafe. At the top, we can see the narrow opening of the object, lips sculpted so close together as if the threshold to the rest of the interior could shut at any moment.
Owen approaches ceramics like she approaches her other sculptural forays. By “seeking the poetic possibilities in fragments and cast-offs,” Owen recombines disparate elements into cohesive objects, evidenced in her use of ceramic remnants with glass, driftwood, and fibers. Owen’s decision to leave the pots unadorned also lets the viewer focus on the compelling shape of the body, instead of a flamboyant or distracting surface. The handles are flat, edgy, and hardly blended at all against the container, almost like Owen attached leftover scraps as an afterthought. This design choice could make handling the pots nerve-wracking, but Owen uses the unusual grip to invite tactile engagement from the audience and potential owners.
The history of pottery appears in sketches on the face of Owen’s ceramic work. She covers a vast timeline and tradition with a few artistic decisions regarding the shape, texture, and colors of the objects. “Excavation sites and still life paintings give us objects that are removed from their practical use–frozen in a painting, harvested at a dig–and these objects become evocative screens for us to project our ideas.” Even Owen’s choice to leave sections and entire vessels unglazed indicates an attraction to other materials. Gestural drawings on the surface allude to ancient cave paintings and contemporary designs in the Southwest, but Owen deliberately adopts the color philosophy and symbolic reflective style from the post-impressionist French painter and printmaker, Pierre Bonnard. Those vessels left bare are textured and colored like canvas drop cloth, adding to the minimal, unrefined quality seen in prehistoric artifacts and harkening back to Owen’s other material interests. This visual trick surprises the viewer and engages our sense of textile continuity. Ultimately, Alison Owen is dedicated to the historical past and to her tactile interest in remnants of today. By blending old and contemporary styles, and precise craft with simplistic execution, Owen’s final products seem to defy their assigned material.
Alison Owen is an artist whose practice is primarily site-specific and ephemeral, hinged to a specific space and time and operating outside of a commercial system. Her ceramics can go out into the world as objects made for daily use. Her interests are in the ways that these practices coexist, and how they support and undermine each other. She makes vessels out of ceramic and fabric, and creates installations that operate as a tableau or still life. Alison holds her BA from Evergreen State College and was awarded her MFA at Claremont Graduate University.