Ruth Owens’s solo exhibition Black Outdoors: Crossing Boundaries is a lush and impressionistic journey through the memory, both individual and collective, of a Black/mixed-race family. Displayed alongside preparatory studies, many of the works found their genesis in a series of isolated still shots taken from archival Super 8 footage of the Owens family in the sixties and seventies. Born to a German mother and Black serviceman, Owens contemplates her early childhood and the various losses and gains that come from first being situated within a Black community and then moving through the alpine landscape of her mother’s homeland and various schools for military children. The large-scale painting Lessons Lost—measuring eight feet square, the artist’s largest work to date—explores this thread most directly. Lay Me Down borrows from a canonical work by Manet and features a Black woman wearing a traditional German dirndl, visually considering both the female figure’s individual and archetypal place in a canonical tradition that has often excluded them.
Other works in Black Outdoors, such as Boy Guide and Baby Love, render moments of intimacy between Black family members. Working with both figuration and abstraction, Owens’s brush strokes move color around the canvas loosely and generously but with a moored sense of control that is as satisfying as her command of narrative composition. A focused study of the construction of an inward, self-penetrating gaze, Owens’s works articulate a social and emotional experience of freedom in a space of historic terror—and in the face of popular contemporary images of “The Great Outdoors” as inherently white space. The loss of land, language, and culture experienced by Black people in the United States and the circumstances that drove many of them to leave the South for “elsewhere” haunt the beauty of Owen’s work. Awash in the natural world, these moments are offered for us to sit with, to meditate on nature as a place of joy and respite for Black and brown people.
Ruth Owens’s solo exhibition Black Outdoors: Crossing Boundaries is on view at Southeastern Louisiana University’s Contemporary Art Gallery through October 29.