In Conversation | Jonathan Owen

about, artists, Jonathan Owen

This week we have been talking to Jonathan Owen, considering aspects of his practice such as labour, process and the somewhat unusual choice of materials used as the base for his projects…

One of the first things that comes to mind when considering your artwork is artistic labour. Through using traditional methods, your work can take months to complete, why is this so important within your practice?

The marble statue works collide two very different traditions of the same activity, carving. In a sense I’m re-starting the same process used to form the object in order to destabilise it, but the statue was carved by someone with the best training, materials, tools, patronage etc. The method of carving I apply to it comes from a more rustic tradition, like scrimshaw, the kind of carving done by someone with just a knife, a piece of wood or bone, and lots of time. The process is a way for me to make something very fixed and stable become malleable and unstable. The forms I produce – interlinking rings, a sphere trapped inside a cage, come from folk carving traditions, but they attract me because they’re non-representational, functional. They don’t represent or symbolise anything, they’re not an image of chain links, they are chain links. They allow me, partially, to turn an image into raw material again. I’m bringing a process to the object which is alien to it, and which disrupts it. Importantly, the process also leaves the object intact and still allows it to be read as an image, but a new, uncertain, image.

The eraser drawings developed from collage/photomontage (a quick process), and my decision to impose increasingly strict material limitations on myself. I worked out a way to erase the focal point of the photograph, currently film stars photographed on set, in a way that disrupts the image as little as possible. The drawings are made by only removing ink from the page. Nothing is added to the surface. It’s like a two-dimensional form of carving, taking my cues from the surrounding details of the image, for instance keeping the straight lines of a building going, or the branches of a tree behind the subject. So you end up with parts of a tree that are formed from Audrey Hepburn’s sweater, or a blurred building formed from the ink that previously formed Kirk Douglas’ head. The imperfection of the process is important. Anything lighter in tone that what is behind it cannot be removed from the image, so it becomes a glitch that can act as a point of access to what has happened. This is often something like a white shirt collar or hand that remains as a visual fragment. If I allowed myself to add material, like pencil, or use photoshop, then these glitches would not remain and the erasure could be done perfectly. The process is not chosen for its slowness, it just evolved and ended up being quite slow! It’s not a traditional method. It’s like drawing, but in reverse – instead of adding material to build an image from light to dark, I gradually erase ink through gradations of tone from dark to light, and ultimately the white of the page.


Your Eraser Drawings range from stills taken from classic Hollywood to James Bond films. Could you expand on the significance of your selections?

The first series were made using photographs from books about public statues, and the statue was erased from each image. These usually ended up as photos nobody would ever bother to take – a section of an anonymous building or some blurred trees in a park. I enjoyed how boring they became, and wondered what would happen if I used images where the background is very rich, artificial and excessive, which made me look at movie stills.

Also, like the statues, the cinema provides a form of ‘false immortality’, to quote Robert Smithson.

The false immortality of the film gives the viewer an illusion of control over eternity – but ‘the superstars’ are fading.

– Robert Smithson, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.

From looking at your marble statues, I found them to have an element of humour at their centre. This idea of taking an aristocratic bust and carving a chain through it seems to evoke a sense of irony. Would you agree?

I don’t set out consciously to make things humorous, although they often end up being incongruous and peculiar.


Sitting in the gallery we also have Owen’s catalogue, featuring pictures of his main bodies of work, and an interview held by Mari Fusco:

Image Courtesy of Susanna Beaumont / doggerfisher.’

Lauren Hawkins, Talbot Rice Gallery Intern 



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