Deer by Calm Water, by Alex Livingston, archival pigment ink print, 47 ” x 65.5,” at Studio 21 Fine Art, 5431 Doyle St., Halifax.
Alex Livingston’s new digital paintings of deer in landscapes play with the mind. What is real and what isn’t?
These beautiful, pastoral images created solely on a computer refer to traditional art forms of photography, printmaking and painting.
The bodies of the deer appear to be lushly painted but even the deer don’t quite look real.
“I’m not trying to be an accurate naturalist,” says Livingston, exhibiting at Studio 21 to May 1 in a space shared with Nova Scotia sculptor Sydney Blum.
“I’m more interested in the variety of ways a deer can be represented and I also wanted to capture the emotional life of the deer.”
The small, colourful orbs dancing above a deer’s head in Buck Imagining Doe represent “what the deer’s thinking,” says Livingston. “Let’s look into his head a bit.”
This new series of work called DEER has many inspirations for Livingston from seeing deer at his Eastern Shore cottage to referencing 18th and 19th century European hunting prints and paintings to exploring natural history dioramas in Chicago, New York and Halifax.
“The Victorians basically stuck an animal in a glass box and there was no context,” says Livingston, a professor of drawing and painting at NSCAD University.
However, Carl Akeley, known as the father of modern taxidermy, changed that in the early 20th century. A fascinating character who was also an inventor and who died in 1921 in Africa near where he encountered his first gorilla, he created a new way of presenting animals naturalistically and was behind the magnificent dioramas of the 1920s and 1930s.
Before National Geographic Magazine and TV nature documentaries “dioramas formed this important educational tool,” says Livingston.
“A lot of museums ended up dismantling them. They are costly to maintain and they thought this wasn’t what young people wanted to see but they made a mistake.”
Livingston loves the suspension of disbelief and magical qualities in dioramas – qualities he mimics in his paintings.
“They’re very cleverly constructed with backgrounds taking you into a deep illusionistic space through painting techniques. You get transported.”
He sees a parallel in his art-making as he layers digitally-created images to build a world that appears realistic. He uses the same pictorial devices of a foreground image, an animal in mid-space and a deep-space background.
On a bench at Studio 21 is Livingston’s small, 1999 book, A History of Four-Footed Beasts and Other Curiosities, based on woodcuts made by Conrad Gesner, a 16th century Swiss “early zoologist,” of existing and mythological animals.
The artist creates black line drawings that look like woodblock prints and act as a lacy, storybook filter. This is one layer of representation among photographs from the Eastern Shore and painted backdrops.
Akeley and his friend President Theodore Roosevelt were ironically both hunters and conservationists who believed people would want to protect the natural world if they could only be immersed in it in museums.
With everyone’s knowledge today of high rates of extinction and the ongoing threat to the natural world and habitat for all creatures, from bees to human beings, it’s impossible not to think of extinction in any artwork on animals.
That is always going to be in the background, says Livingston, but it was not his intention. He is fascinated by the symbolic qualities of deer throughout history and he wants to celebrate and honour deer – creatures that are “ wondrous to look at.”
Sydney Blum describes her undulating, colour-charged, wall sculptures in a poetic way.
“They are shields, they are wings, they are air, they are water flow. They are currents, a breeze, a piece of paper flying,” she says in a phone interview from her Tatamagouche home.
Getting ready to show May 9 in New York City, she is exhibiting for her first time in Halifax at Studio 21 in Icarus-Colour-Space.
To create these majestic, optically-spellbinding pieces she went back to a childhood of sewing and a memory of the story of Icarus from a beloved book of myths and legends.
The artist, who taught for 17 years at New York’s Parsons College of Fine Art, starts each of her series with an idea.
This work was driven by thoughts about motion “in the etheric sense so the idea of a transcendence of moving back and forth between the secular and the more spiritual level.
“I wanted to create something beautiful and it needed to have some sense of motion. I’m a practical sculptor. I do things in a non-tech way.”
The wings are laboriously created out of hundreds of pieces cut from heavy, architectural chipboard. She painted each piece individually to get her waves of gradiated colour and then assembled the artwork by “sewing” one tiny piece to another with metal thread.
Blum works with a grid. “I love grids. I love the order of them, the solidity of them. They’re very formal but also can be can be individualized and made very emotional.”
As her form goes from flat to fluid it is supported by an exo-skeleton of wire. She keeps the back of her piece – and her processs – visible so you can see the wire and the numbers on the squares, all originally mapped out on paper. “Both sides are part of the piece.”
The sheer amount of labour is staggering. “I work six hours a day. Because I was doing a row a day or every other day there was enough variation. Every square is a different colour so I’m constantly mixing different colours and it’s quite engaging.”
Her inspiration for colour can be from looking at a winter sky to, in the case of 2017pnkorgylw-grn (titled in a colour code), seeing an apple in her orchard.
“It was the most beautiful, perfect apple and the transition in colour was so subtle and I thought, ‘How would you begin to capture that and why would you want to?’ I did want to and I didn’t come close!”
An apple inspired the colour in Sydney Blum’s ICS2017pnkorgylw-grn, of paper chipboard, paint, pencil and wire, 33 x 41 x 21,” at Studio 21.
Blum, who practices Tai Chi and Chi Gong, creates a remarkable fluidity in wave-like motion and sees her sculptures as stopped motion within a continuous movement in space and time.
“Any movement of energy through a form interests me. The idea of an earthquake when a force can move through a solid and re-form is fascinating and a version of that is in the tides and the water and a breeze that starts in one tree and moves to the next.”
Blum has exhibited in Europe and in the U.S; her work has been written about in Art Forum, Art in America and The New York Times.
In 2009 she moved to Tatamagouche. “I moved here specifically to be in proximity to the water and the power of the tides. I wanted to internalize that in my body before I died.”
In her New York show, Both Sides of the Sky, at the Kim Foster Gallery, the grid itself has a gradient of colour which is a new development in this series. These images are online (https://kimfostergallery.com/sydney-blum/), along with her earlier Fuzzy Geometry series painstakingly constructed out of strands of hair from coloured wigs.