Richard Owen


11 - 30 April 2014

Deep bruised blues and purples dominate the canvas, made more intense by the contrast of delicate yellows and oranges peeking out from behind, reminiscent of one of Turner’s stormy skies. Unlike Turner, however, in the works of Richard Owen the shapes here do not bloom in the soft, rounded forms of clouds and trees, but rather, stretch across in horizontal swathes, the flat expanses of paint belying the use of a palette knife in their uniform flatness, as well as the naked areas left behind where the paint has refused to be coaxed by the knife. In other works, the rough edges of vivid greens and rich organic hues are testament to the artist’s deft hand, painterly flourishes left behind by the brushstroke giving a sense of movement to the work. In others, a more architectural approach is evident, the scraping lines and geometric sculpture harking at Minimalism, the colours floating removed and serene, as if behind a gauze. 

Owen's practice is informed by an exploration of colour and shape, as well as the complex and subtly expressive nature of oil paint. Starting out painting smaller-scale, figurative pieces – cityscapes and still lifes – it was a realization that what interested him was “the contribution of colour and composition to the mood of the painting, rather than any particular subject matter,” which proved to be a turning point in his practice. Reducing the subject over time to simple motifs and pictorial devices, such as a horizon line or a stylised shadow, Owen realised that “representational content in a painting had become a limiting factor,” pushing him to abandon it completely.

This deepened focus on abstraction also led to an exploration of larger-scale works. While Owen still creates pieces in the range of 50 x 50 cm, newer paintings stretch to over a square metre in size.

This has brought about its own challenges, in composition and process, and also the decision to lessen the sense of the artist’s hand. In doing so, he has introduced elements of randomness to the mark-making process, reflecting his interest in the nature of reality and the underlying order of things (the natural patterns found in nature rather than formal structures and order that are intentionally imposed). Rather like the Abstract painter Bill Komoski, Owen’s works touch on spatial dislocation as well as a sense of order within chaos and vice-versa. What this means is that Owen does not set out with a specific colour pattern or combination as a parameter when beginning a work. “Starting the painting is more like starting a game of chess, with constraints but also a huge number of possibilities,” he explains. “You are always looking for the checkmate. It won’t be the first move, but it might be the fourth or fifth or 30th move. Or you can lose the game in a lifeless mess of wasted paint.” 

While Owen works predominantly in oil paint, early forays saw experimentation with acrylics, and his current works often use a combination of the two. “In some ways acrylics are easier to handle in large quantities,” he explains, “but I felt they lacked some of the complex effects that oil paint can achieve, and they can be almost too uniform.” The oil paint also lends itself to the specific mark-making process evident in Owen’s oeuvre – a process that is extremely physical, for, in addition to brush strokes, the canvases bear witness to scraping techniques and the mark of the palette knife, a process which allows the painting to ‘emerge’, as he works on it, colours being applied and removed in quick succession to build up the canvas, layer upon layer. “In the future I would like to expand the scale of the work even further,” he says, “There are also more ways of applying paint, and the unique physical and textural qualities of oil paint that I would like to try working with.”