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Figure / Ground: Philip Livingston, April Featured Artist

After decades of teaching sculpture and designing sets, Philip Livingston is now engaged in a dynamic, transdisciplinary painting practice situated around the figure-ground relationship. In this month's interview, we discussed how his career and theories about perception inform his current work.

Philip Livingston in his studio next to his painting Sombre Dimanche

Figure / Ground

As a student, Philip Livingston was told that he had to choose between his two passions, sculpture and film. “Looking back now," he reflects, "I think that was terrible advice. I’d never say that to a student.” Luckily, throughout his decades-long career, Livingston found a way to explore a range of interests and modes of visual thinking. After finishing graduate school with a focus on sculpture, he continued to read and teach film theory while applying his skill in sculpture to a variety of environments.

While teaching at the University of Tennessee, he worked on various commissions, from designing restaurant interiors to crafting synagogue furniture to creating sets for a modern dance company. He enjoyed the versatility of sculpture in these different settings: while religious design is meant to be permanent and sacred, sets for theater and dance are by nature ephemeral. Through his collaboration with choreographers he was able to execute ideas in a fast-paced environment, trying new things that were completely different from his other work.

For decades, Livingston’s design and sculpture were always quite abstract, which at first glance makes his current interest in the figure seem like somewhat of a departure. When he was designing sets, however, the body was always present - his work interacted physically with dancers who moved in front of, between, and around his constructions. Now, working with a two-dimensional plane, Livingston has to superimpose the body if he wants to work with it, and he does so by flattening the figure to where it sits on top of the ground, often as pure silhouettes.

In many of his paintings, like Time at the Beach, the figure is intentionally foregrounded to convey narrative or symbolic meaning. Taking inspiration from pre-Renaissance and Asian art, perspective is not used for verisimilitude, but rather it is used as a device to convey meaning, where larger figures are more important and the viewer is meant to trace the work with their eyes as a sort of visual journey. “I like to pretend that the Renaissance never happened,” he jokes.

In his work, space and time are both compressed. In Time at the Beach, the silhouette of Livingston’s granddaughter dances around the panel, frozen at various moments. The effect produced is one of nostalgia, reminding the viewer of how memories exist in similar snapshots in our minds, time distorted and compressed into a series of distinct moments. In this instance, while he was drawn to the figure because of its interesting shape, it is used more as a vehicle for meaning rather than as a case study in the human form, akin to the collaborative process between dancer, choreographer, and designer.

Philip Livingston, Time at the Beach, 2020, acrylic paint, pastel and silver leaf on birch panel, 30"x 25"x 2"

Human / Nature

Other themes present in Livingston’s work are weather and electricity. His interest in the sky, Livingston shares, was initially piqued by traditional interpretations of weather as symbolic of emotional states of mind. A rainy day sets the mood for a dramatic climax in a film; a painting of a sunset elicits a touching emotional response. More recently, his preoccupation with weather has moved towards an investment in calling attention to climate change, which Livingston supposes makes him “sort of a political artist” for the first time in his decades-long career.

With this in mind, his use of electricity becomes clear as a metaphor for human industry and intervention in the natural landscape. In Two Sunsets, an Electrical Storm, and Some Purple Flowers, the twin electrical poles stand in stark contrast to the natural landscape. The electrical storm, with its gestural fluidity, explosively interrupts the landscape but is also in harmony with it as it uses the same hues of the purple flowers. Human connection to the natural environment is complex, the painting suggests. The dual sunsets also lend an eerie, almost science-fiction-like feeling of a natural landscape where something isn’t quite right.

Livingston has moved dozens of times over the span of his artistic career, something that prompts him to think about the nature of home and the difficulty of locating it. Livingston's method of selecting silhouettes from photographs and placing them in a fabricated landscape lends itself to this feeling of foreign restlessness. One of his paintings, Wanderers, directly confronts this theme of seeking home, with the distant electrical line and eerie sunset again recalling themes of climate change, or in this case, climate migration.

Philip Livingston, Two Sunsets, an Electrical Storm, and Some Purple Flowers

2022, pastel, acrylic paint and oil stick on Baltic birch panel 33” x 33” x 1 1/2”

Materials / Influences

Livingston is conscious of his materials, a result of his decades-long engagement with sculpture and set design. Notably, his paintings now are all on unprimed birch panels, allowing his figures and gestures to dance along with the visible woodgrain. He likes to use specific media for different things, giving each of them a different role. Oil sticks are used for explosive, colorful gestural moments, while pastel is used for delicately layering color, and acrylic paint is used for bold, simple effects. The result is a painting composed of different symbols to be interpreted by the viewer. “I thought it was an original idea; turns out a lot of artists talk about that- oops!” Livingston laughed.“Still, I like the idea of presenting a bunch of things and letting the viewer decide how to put them together.”

He showed me a recently finished painting, titled Forgotten Sky, composed of simple shapes: a swirling blue orb in the upper left hand corner, a diagonal black line across the bottom, and a sculptural black line that protrudes into the viewer’s space. Livingston compares the simplicity of the piece to that of Haiku. This piece, devoid of figures, is focused on the viewer’s experience. The three dimensional black line humorously represents a slow move back into sculpture.

When asked about his influences, Livingston shared that contemporary fiction has been the most important to his practice over time, noting Haruki Murakami as a favorite of his. “I like the idea of drawing inspiration from a parallel art form,” he said. Physics is another interest of his, because of its abstract nature and nexus between theory and practice. Livingston is also inspired by contemporary painters like William Kentridge, Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker, for their use of symbol, narrative, and playful mixture of the macabre and humorous. Among all of his sources of inspiration, real life is the most rich and pervasive one. Livingston's work presents a study in human nature, prompting us to think about how we interact with the natural and built environment through our actions, memories, and relationships.

Philip Livingston, Forgotten Sky, 2023

To learn more about Philip Livingston and his work, check out his website and his Instagram.

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