Alison Owen

Illuminating Space, East Side Monthly

Two exhibits at Brown play with their surroundings

By Martina Windels

East Side Monthly, October 2010

“I really wanted to address the overbearing grids in the space, “ says artist Alison Owen, while putting the finishing touches on the installation Divisibility, her first solo show in New England.

The space described by Owen is the lobby of the List Art Center at Brown University, a modernist building designed by Philip Johnson in the early seventies with a  strong grid of rectangles covering its slightly brutish exterior. Inside, a grid pattern of floor tiles competes with a wooden grid suspended from the ceiling, supporting the gallery lighting.

Owen has pulled the exterior inside the gallery by continuing its concrete grid on the interior wall adjacent to the window, making its strong pattern visible, and then placing decorative flourishes within the grid around the doorway. Around the corner, the placement of five panels incorporating decorative borders and floral motifs responds to the space by mirroring an opening leading to the elevator. On a third wall an empty frame hung to correspond with lines established by door and window dimensions acts as a dignifier that the artist has left her mark everywhere in this incongruous space.

Owen, a painter, works with everyday materials like tape, nails, string, and scraps of wood to leave her marks, interacting with a space to create site-specific installations. As she embellishes the lobby with half-circles, floral and leaf patterns, stylized diamonds and even small gold dots to punctuate the existing architecture, she is drawing out the invisible, overlooked details of the space.

Over the last year Owen has started to incorporate dust and debris affixed with double-stick tape in her pieces. Here, the wallpaper-like elements in varying tones of grey and beige correspond well with the color of the concrete. Using dust found in the space to create decorative flourishes to adorn the building adds another layer of meaning: the detritus collected in the space is turned into beauty to enhance it while refocusing the viewer’s perception.

While Owen is using her carefully placed embellishments to help us examine our surroundings anew, in the main gallery the exhibition Pictures from the Hay is celebrating the centennial of the John Hay Library by showcasing a selection of 130 paintings, prints, photographs, and artifacts from the collection. The selection provides a glimpse at the many significant works of visual art found within the five million books monographs, manuscripts, broadsides, photographs, prints, postage stamps, and sheet music held at the library.

Works by renowned artists include a painting by John Singer Sargent, photographs by Roger Fenton, and prints by Paul Revere, Robert Motherwell and Jim Dine, but the main focus of the exhibit are the unusual books and book arts. Books by Copernicus and Galileo are on display next to medical illustrations, beautifully embellished sheet music and heavily decorated bibles. Many of the exhibits are excellent illustrations of  manuscript illumination, supplementing a text through added ornamentation like borderd or marginalia. A magnificent example of this is a large book by William Morris (of the British Arts and Crafts movement), printed by the Kelmscott Press in 1896 in which the ornate illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones dominate the pages containing The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

There lies the clear parallel to Owen’s work on display in the entrance, in which she has achieved a similar effect of “space illumination,” supplementing the space by adding ornamentation. In each case the ornamentation is used to highlight what is there: the text in a book is embellished by drawings and marginalia similar to the way Owen enlivens an environment through decorative transformation. In either case, the way we look at something and perceive it is changed.