Laura Owens' Hand-Painted Op

"Skeuomorphism!" cried Jony Ive in 2007. With that fighting word the Apple design chief announced the death of the drop shadow, a trompe l'oeil gimmick that had been popular with designers of interfaces, images, and apps.
Apple's iOS 6, with drop shadows, v. iOS 7, without
Yet the drop shadow lives, and that's the spit take at the center of the Whitney-organized Laura Owens show now at MOCA Geffen. Owens is a genius at repurposing midcult art, and nothing is more irredeemably midcult than trompe l'oeil. With a 2+ millennia of history ranging from Zeuxis' painted grapes (so real the birds pecked them) to Harnett and Peto's letter racks, it is surely impossible to do anything new and interesting with trompe l'oeil (assuming a serious artist even cared to do so).
Small detail of an untitled 2013 Laura Owens painting
Owens has achieved just that. She hand-paints drop shadows to big, 3D slathers of paint high enough to cast authentic shadows. It sounds too crazy to work, like a Chuck Jones Road Runner painting a train tunnel. Yet from a normal viewing stance, Owens' illusion is almost undetectable. You would need to stand well to the side of the painting (questionable museum etiquette) to appreciate that most (yet not all) of the projecting 3D elements are flat or nearly so. A substantial fraction of the MOCA Geffen's astute visitors must indeed be fooled, like Wile E. Coyote.

In contemporary (and 1944 MGM) terms, Owens is gaslighting us. To put that another way: Owens is painting trompe l'oeil illusions of what her viewers think her paintings are.
Owens does high-brow shout-outs when it suits her (Toulouse-Lautrec, Mori Sosen), but her aesthetic is more defined by its nods to quirky populists like Sister Corita Kent. An untitled 2003 Owens in MOCA's collection shows two people embracing, as if after the latest California catastrophe. The human story is painting-bombed by the unexpectedly "real" reflection in the puddle at lower left. Owens appropriates the most middle-brow of all dorm-room modernists, M.C. Escher.
M.C. Escher, Puddle, 1952