By Steven Litt
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A typical art education program for teens at a major American art museum might result in an exhibition of student work displayed in an out-of-the-way hallway.
As for curating an actual exhibition in a highly visible gallery, few, if any museums would turn over the keys to a bunch of high school students.
But that’s exactly what the Cleveland Museum of Art did in its outstanding current show, “Laura Owens: Rerun,’’ on view at the Transformer Station gallery, the museum’s part-time satellite in Ohio City, through Sunday, May 30.
The exhibition is a high-spirited riff on the theme of “time travel,’’ a focus chosen by participating students from Cleveland-area schools in collaboration with Owens, a Northeast Ohio native known for multilayered paintings that blend gestural abstraction with images taken from pop culture, newspaper graphics, advertising, and cartoons.
The show combines a selection of works by the artist from throughout her career, including her teen years, with objects selected by the students from the museum’s 10,000-object Education Art Collection.
Also on view is a frieze of artistic clocks created by Owens and mounted high on a gallery wall, with quirky imagery on their faces and hands that occasionally run in the wrong direction. Plus, there’s an extraordinary site-specific installation that blends 52.5 sheets of custom-made wallpaper produced by Owens’ studio in collaboration with the students.
Hand-printed in tones of mauve and turquoise that evoke a dreamy state of mind, the room combines linoleum block prints, photos of the participating students, plus memes created by the students based on famous works from the museum’s permanent collection, and much more.
It’s a large-scale meditation on how teens plaster their bedroom walls with photos, posters, and ads clipped from magazines.
Owens, born in Euclid in 1970 and now based in Los Angeles, is a smashing hometown success.
After having grown up in Norwalk and having spent many hours as a teen soaking up inspiration at the Cleveland Museum of Art, she earned her bachelor of fine arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, and a master of fine arts at the University of California, Valencia.
Her mid-career retrospective debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017 and later traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
For her show at Transformer, Owens agreed to work with teens participating in the Cleveland museum’s Arts Mastery Program, called “Currently Under Curation.’’ The program is an outcome of a $368,400 grant awarded in 2017 by the Ford and Walton Foundations, along with another $368,520 from the Cleveland Foundation to help diversify museum professions long dominated by whites.
The participating students, Jamal Carter, Xyhair Davis, Skylar Fleming, Yomi Gonzalez, Joseph Hlavac, Agatha Mathoslah, Arica McKinney, Maya Peroune, and Deonta Steele, hail from several Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools or Holy Name High School and Shaker Heights High School.
Starting in 2018, they were paid stipends to co-organize the Owens show, to choose objects from the Education Collection, to write explanatory labels, and to perform other tasks working alongside Owens and staff members in the Education and Curatorial departments.
The students also worked with Owens to create a time capsule that will be “buried” in the Education Department archive until 2031.
The pleasures of the show spring directly from its unusual nature, and from the wall power of Owens’ paintings. Viewers are essentially challenged to draw connections between Owens’ artworks, the oddball objects on display, and the wallpaper room.
The main gallery at Transformer focuses on Owens’ paintings, which readily invite rumination on time travel. Paintings on view are printed with manipulated pages of newspaper stories and classified ads that blend undated images and texts from various historical periods with passages of Abstract Expressionist-style brushwork.
“Untitled,’’ made in 2015, displays stories written in a telegraphic, wire-story style and laid out on an archaic, eight-column page with headlines such as “Screwball Ideas Essential,’’ “Convict Leper Gets Hearing for New Trial,’’ and “Explosion Unlikely to Derail Private Space Travel.’’ Alongside the stories are ads for various products, some smeared with flamboyant strokes of paint in ways that recall the “combines” and collages of Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg.
The trick of Owens’ painting is that the newspaper stories seduce a viewer into trying to decode their meanings and connections. The work pulls you in and holds your attention.
In an untitled and very different work from 2001 that depicts a pair of monkeys resting on a tree branch, Owens displays affection for classic themes from Asian art. And in a 2016 abstraction, she plays with tensions between flatness and three-dimensionality in a work that combines a digitally-manipulated, screen-printed collage with colorful schmears of paint as thick as cream cheese.
Scattered throughout the show are works that explore Owens’ love for accumulating newspaper clippings on topics such as her apparent obsession with Vincent van Gogh, and the art awards she won as a teen.
Also sprinkled throughout are the enigmatic objects from the museum’s Education Collection, including a reproduction of a pre-Columbian “frog vessel,’’ a quaint needlepoint picture of the museum, and linoleum blocks carved by Cleveland high school students in the 1920s for a project to create a kind of bestiary.
All of these elements and more are thrown together in the exhibition’s wallpaper room. Technicians at Owens’ studio used a laser-cutting machine to reproduce a wallpaper pattern carved on antique blocks that the students unearthed in the Education Collection. The technicians used the bestiary linocuts to create new linocuts, which they hand-printed on the wallpaper sheets.
Amazingly, they also used a screen-printing process to print the wallpaper with multi-colored images of Owens’ high school artworks, photographs of the Cleveland teens, and images of the memes they created from artworks in the museum’s permanent collection.
“Thousands of human hours were spent making this wallpaper,’’ said David Berezin, Owens’ studio director. “It’s so time-consuming. At no point does it get anywhere close to a computer printer. Everything is hand done.”
The wallpaper room’s thrust is that Owens is showing how work from her teen years has led in a continuous way to her ongoing, high-profile career. It’s another variation on the time travel theme.
By extension, Owens is sending a message to the teens with whom she worked that they’re fully capable — with the museum’s support — of collaborating with a pro to produce a stimulating, high-quality exhibition.
Viewers get to share the fun vicariously and to witness the results of an innovative education program that provided a potentially life-changing experience for the students involved.
On a poignant note, the wallpaper room will be destroyed when the show ends. It’s a fleeting, experience, like youth itself. But as the show also argues, anyone can travel through time to recover and revive the past.
What’s up: Laura Owens: Rerun
Venue: Transformer Station
Where: 1460 West 29th Street, Cleveland
When: Through Sunday, May 30. Wednesday–Sunday: 11am–5pm
Admission: Free. Timed tickets required