Jonathan Owen’s Defaced Photos & Sculptures Are Surreal, Puzzle-Like Objects

A master of tools of destruction, British artist Jonathan Owen attacks the forms of cultural history, deconstructing and removing the elements that give them their objecthood and replacing them with alien forms that demand the viewer’s reconsideration. In both his “Eraser Drawings” and his sculptural works, Owen uses subtractive methods of art-making through which he complicates and redefines the object. 

Owen’s “Eraser Drawings” imitate digital functions of programs such as Photoshop, but are in fact all done by hand using a meticulous process of erasing ink from black-and-white photos found in books. He slowly eliminates significant parts of the image to leave ghostly traces. To date, he has created two series in this vein: one of public statues and another of Hollywood film stars on set; in both, the subjects are almost absent in the final works. 

In his sculptures, Owen’s found objects are once again reworked to build unsettling new forms. Traditional marble busts have their insides removed and are partially carved into intricate, abstract shapes that at once deconstruct and amplify their original form. The works are initially recognizable as figures, but many have been carved out so that the body becomes detached from itself, thus emphasizing its materiality. This method is most apparent in David (2013), in which a figure’s head has been detached like a chain link and rests on the sculpture’s shoulder, creating an effect that is somehow both surreal and romantic. 

By removing parts of the original, Owen adds meaning and structure through negative space. In both of these series, the eye attempts to uncover the original image (called the “ur-image” in writing about traditional palimpsestic forms), but the missing pieces overwhelm this potential and the viewer is forced to settle into a state of unknowing. He joins many contemporary artists that have examined the function of additive erasure, including Idris Khan, Jeremy Millar, or even Michel Gondry, but his works are more focused on the final image or sculpture than on the process. Defacing is often used as an act of protest, but by Owen it is utilized as a means to an end, in which the final object is a work of complex beauty. 

—K. Sundberg

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