[First published as a review in Arts Atlantic 41, Fall 1991, vol. 11 Number 1, page 13-14.]
Alex Livingston: Recent PaintingsAnna Leonowens Gallery, NSCAD, Halifax5-16 March 1991
A chunky bird floats over a heavy butterfly and several fat caterpillars as they munch through an entanglement of thick plants. Stems issue forth from trumpet and bell-shaped blossoms. Among the three larger works in the show, one is more hierarchically designed than the others, with flat, intertwined vegetation like Celtic manuscript illumination. The plants in this painting are star-shaped flowers. Three smaller paintings, with auras like little organic light bulbs, made up the exhibition's complement of six works.
Livingston's flowers are best seen as an evocation of general types, and not specific varieties of plants; there is also a generic look to the butterflies and caterpillars. The painterly technique connects underbrush with underbrushings, a tradition of painting having to do with the second-guessing of surfaces. In the best of Livingston's works, canvasses are painted over until it is impossible to reconstruct a sequence of paint applications from the final surface. Successively applied layers of paint obscure parts of the underpainting, leaving patches of colour here and there; streaks of paint move up from under other streaks; and swatches of colours poke their way through at various (seemingly) random locations.
Since he graduated from NSCAD in 1983, Livingston's Expressionist garden paintings have received praise from many sectors of a fractious art world. He attained a teaching position at the College (academic credibility), his work appeared some years ago on the cover of an edition of Halifax's telephone white pages (public acceptability), he has won corporate art commissions, his work has toured the country in an exhibition (INNOVA Scotia) sponsored by Lavalin (another corporate kudo); in the mid-'80s he was described as among the best of the area's brushy Expressionists by Charlotte Townsend-Gault (critical acceptance).
Livingston has always been straightforward about the seductive nature of his work. Any guilt associated with generous, hedonistic painting, the suggestion of moral laxity, associations with idolatry -- all that Calvinist Christian stuff -- is absent. He is aware of the difficulty in making credible flower paintings, of bringing something new to the effort; the problem of investing new significance into certain subject matter. So much imagery has been "devalued," according to Livingston.
Livingston has been interested in the image of a mythical garden as a place of repose and delight since art school. It is an idea one might associate with Matisse, or the sensibility of the makers of the gardens at Versailles; part of the traditional iconography of the idle and ruling rich. Livingston feels his earlier "Vista" paintings, as he calls them, express a jaded nostalgia associated with a certain class or group sensibility. His newest paintings, made after a period of abstract painting (shown last year at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia) resume the vegetation theme without the overt class associations of the palace gardens he used in earlier works.
Study at NSCAD with the late John Clark was important to Livingston's development. Clark participated in a reintroduction of lush, big figure painting at NSCAD in the late '70s and early '80s, a period experienced by art students as an ideological glass-bead game involving faculty like Benjamin Buchloh, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Bruce Barber (committed to socio/critical work), and a group of painters including John Clark, Ron Shuebrook, and Judith Mann. (This overview is too simple and symmetrical, I am describing only one of the many features of the college's intellectual life at the time.)
Within the revival of Expressionism in the early '80s, NSCAD painters like Clark and students like Livingston consciously distanced themselves from the Expressionistic trend, no doubt because of morphological similarities to Neo-Expressionism in their work. The Buchloh faction, as might be expected, condemned the painting revival outright, without making distinctions among painters, seeing Clark and his compatriots as another colonial variation on a new and regressive international style.
The buzz around the painting studio at NSCAD ay the time, fluently articulated by Cark, rejected the work of most of the artists associated with Neo-Expressionism. To Clark, Neo-Expressionism was seen to be less a revival of painting than a takeover of painting by conceptual art. Also, it seemed to Clark and others that Neo-Expressionists were not interested in the structure of painting but only in the imagery and subject matter. As Clark described it (and who could disagree?) there was a strange mixture of obsessive attitudes and stylistic detachment in Neo-Expressionism, particularly in the German painters. Obsessiveness was almost being used as a system, but with an ironical distance in the work. The attitude of the Neo-Expressionists seemed to reflect a strategy designed to fill the work up with meaning.
The NSCAD painting faculty of the early '80s, including Clark and Mann, and students like Livingston, related better to an earlier generation of artists such as Marsden Hartley, Philip Guston, and Milton Avery, or with such British painters as Frank Auerbach and Howard Hodgkin. (Hovering behind all this was, of course, the art of Matisse.) In conversation, Clark used to refer to Julien Schnabel's work -- work emblematic of Neo-Expressionism -- as having a "theatrical surface like [the cartoonist] Ralph Steadman."
The idea about ironical surface-making renders Livingston's frequent remarks about "not going after a surface" more intelligible. Since the late '80s, painting has reverted to its position in contemporary art as one medium among many; and so the confusion about surfaces that look (superficially -- is that possible?) alike is receding. Perhaps now, a painter like Livingston, who has resolutely followed his own path, will be assessed with greater seriousness.
Alex Livingston and others may well have been pulling off the project of reinvestment of "devalued" imagery, but it seems bitterly ironic that a decade of Neo-Expressionist painting may have inhibited the enterprise.