LOS ANGELES — The first thing you notice in the rooms full of paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Laura Owens is that everyone from the kids to the grandparents is smiling.
Paintings are alive with whimsical little animals - bats, bees, birds, and funny monkeys with eyeglasses at the first major exhibition of this rising international star at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
At the same time, other canvases are cleanly austere, such as one of the many works dubbed, "Untitled," with nothing but three zones of color that evoke a mountain range or vast dunes at twilight. Some are meticulously painted portraits, while others suggest the doodling of a bored high school math student. Ms. Owens's works have something for everyone.
They also take something from everyone, says curator Paul Schimmel. "She moves easily and at will through Eastern and Western traditions, through high and low as well as personal and social."
But remarkably, for a 21st-century painter, she does this with a straightforward affection for these traditions and little of the ironic or self-conscious attitudes that have dominated much of late 20th-century art.
"The art that informs her work is not presented in any sort of hierarchical manner," says Mr. Schimmel. "She approaches them all with the same sort of openness and response to folk and craft traditions as she does to the entire history of high art." He points to her references to Chinese landscape art and her homage to the art of embroidery, a tradition she learned from own grandmother.
Owens has been credited with helping to revive the moribund art of painting, which by the end of the 20th century had collapsed into a mire of self-referential cynicism.
After artistic giants of the past century, such as Picasso and Jackson Pollock, deconstructed painting to its primal essence, painters have wrestled with the question of "What comes next?"
Owens, on the other hand, steps right past such a weighty question with deceptively simple answers. She has said that painting should not be burdened, calling her work "very specifically American."
Born and raised in Ohio, she credits her Midwestern childhood with grounding her artistic aesthetic, calling it a straightforward, no-bones-about-it sensibility with a certain sense of humor. The airy lightness and gentle playfulness that run through all the paintings certainly reflect this attitude. More important, she specifically rejects a detached, ironic stance.
"I have faith in painting," she says. "I have a belief that you can actually do something with [it]."
A locally trained artist who has chosen to stay in L.A. rather than seek fame and fortune in say, New York or even abroad, Owens says her career has been lifted by the growing wave of support from local institutions, a recent trend in the L.A. art scene.
MOCA director Jeremy Strick points out that providing institutional support to emerging Los Angeles-based artists is an essential part of the museum's mandate and one "that MOCA takes pride in playing."
Owens herself has taken on a nurturing role toward local artists. She has actively participated in organizing shows and events with fellow artists, a sort of humility, says Schimmel, that is unusual for painters, whose solitary work habits tend to breed large egos.
Owens is keenly aware of the social and political climate of her time. In one recent painting, she put carefully rendered images of protesters and a cowboy with a gun, a specific reference to the war in Iraq. She also celebrates crafts such as needlework that are typically considered "women's work."
"She treats them with the same vigor, respect, and interest she gives the high traditions," says Schimmel, "and that has political implications."
The MOCA curator says he first encountered Owens's work eight years ago in her first local gallery show. At the time, the eclectic range of her visual styles and interests seemed a mark of immaturity. "I remember thinking, 'This is smart and interesting, if a bit coy.' I wondered where she was going with it."
But as her career has taken off, Owens has stuck with her multiple interests. Her work has not settled into a single style.
"I thought she'd grow out of it," Schimmel says of the artist he now calls one of a handful of the most important painters internationally.
"But in a sense, and this is what we learn from artists, the very sense of her inability to say this is a fish or fowl has become her hallmark. What I interpreted as the sign of a not-fully-formed mind is actually who she is."