The 20th Century pioneers of abstraction staked out a territory as far as possible from the representational art of the past. Their revolutionary goal was to create art with no resemblance to the natural world, pictures without any suggestion of three-dimensional form or space. In the much more fluid realm of recent art, many painters are blurring this hard line between abstraction and representation, creating imagined worlds that borrow many elements from the visible world, and using many of the tools of realist art. Two abstract painters who begin by studying nature and end up in dramatically different places are on display in Pioneer Square this month, and KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his observations on their work.
Few art forms are more purely subjective than abstraction. Freed from the requirement that their pictures must resemble some familiar object or scene, abstract painters can work in a completely independent universe, one with its own rules and vocabulary — with colors, shapes, and lines that exist for no reason other than their meaning to the artist, and the effect they produce.
But “pure” abstraction has lately shared wall space with another sort of abstraction — that with an intentional connection to the visible world. One of the originators of this branch of abstraction was the early 20th century pioneer Mondrian, who created a series of highly influential studies in which a tree becomes gradually more grid-like and less recognizable, finally transformed into pure geometry. In the case of the two Seattle painters Margie Livingston and Patricia Hagen, their own observations of the natural world remain a clear presence in their abstract paintings, with results that reveal as much about their distinct temperaments and approaches, as about the subject matter they use as inspiration.
The white-dominated sparseness of many of the images stands in contrast to the crowded, more textured quality of Hagen’s earlier work, examples of which are also in the show. In these paintings, the air in which the globules float is itself a highly worked and encrusted surface, and there seems to be less breathing room overall — an appropriate metaphor for pictures in which disease and disfigurement are part of the implied mix, and where certain of the molecules — red, dripping, bristling with spikes — look menacing, or unhealthy. I personally found more to dwell on in these busier pictures, with some of the newer work almost too minimal for its own good.
It is a bracing and eye-opening journey to stroll up the street to the exhibit of work by Margie Livingston at Greg Kucera, a few blocks, but light-years away in terms of its painterly technique and artistic goals. Although Livingston is also an emerging female artist whose work references the natural world, the resemblance stops there. Where Hagen’s work is highly intuitive and purposely rough around the edges, Livingston is elegant, analytical, and rigorous — each paint stroke seems to be considered, and a linear, almost metallic structure is everywhere dominant.
This striking and beautiful exhibit is the successful culmination of a decade-long project in which Livingston has focused on painting abstractly while working from observation. For the past five or so years Livingston’s chosen motif has been tree branches, brought into the artist’s studio, suspended in space, and observed in both natural and artificial light. Livingston’s departure from her actual subject matter is more radical than is the case with Hagen — her trees are no more recognizable than those transformed by Mondrian. Here the dead branch has been reborn as a precise, diaphanous framework of faintly colored lines moving in deep space, a construction as finely balanced, and as poised to move gracefully in the breeze, as the wired arms of a mobile by Alexander Calder.
Perhaps the most spectacular of these haunting works is a five-foot high canvas entitled "Structure (Late autumn bright)." Against a graded blue and rose background inspired by the light seen on her studio wall, Livingston has created a dense of array of single paint strokes in muted shades of blue, beige, black, and white, strokes so slender and elongated as to bring to mind the pick-up sticks of the childhood game. But unlike the randomness of those tumbled sticks, the hundreds of gleaming or shadowy lines in Livingston’s painting form a perspectival array like a ghostly scaffolding or giant electrical tower, a construction with a visible logic that is both methodical and mysterious, tunneling deep into the apparent space of the painting in a way that belies the traditional notion of abstraction as denying pictorial depth.
There are many subtle variations in the twenty paintings in the show, all of which share the same main title: Structure. Not all the networks penetrate so deeply in space, and not all are as open and lightweight in their construction. In one much smaller painting, a diminishing web of nearly transparent lines suddenly erupts into a dark, twisted knot, like an interruption of the irrational in a universe of order. The knot itself is more lovingly detailed and more clearly imagined than the rest of the image, as though conflict is more compelling than its resolution. Several of the other images have complete latticework constructions that have been purposely painted out, so that the only trace of their previous existence is a slight relief on the surface of the canvas, a framework more felt than observed — like the pure idea before it emerges as form.
The art journals of late have been full of the surprising news that painting has again risen from predictions of its demise. As Livingston and Hagen pursue a direction that combines elements of two major traditions — the representational and the abstract — they are both excellent examples of the practice of painting displaying its continuing vigor.