Alex Livingston brings 17th-century Dutch flower painting into the 21st century with his glorious, large, digital “paintings” of flowers.
The Dutch painters were brooding on morality and mortality in their beautiful renditions of decaying plant life and symbolic objects.
“I want a celebration of nature and expression,” says Livingston, sitting in Studio 21 Fine Art where the eye-popping colour of his fanciful flowers lightens the iron grip of March.
As a painter for over 30 years, he “paints” digitally using the language of paint for images that are startling in apparent textures including wood, sticky paint and chalk, and in terms of light and shadow.
The pictures, multi-layered in techniques and meaning, are pleasantly puzzling in a split between real and unreal, indoors and outdoors, traditional and avant garde.
Livingston, a professor of painting and drawing at NSCAD University and visual artist for over 30 years, wouldn't have explored digital painting if he hadn't become sensitive to the solvents used in oil painting.
“My fingers started to tingle and my feet started to tingle and my head was foggy and Heather pointed out that's probably because you're getting sensitive to solvents,” says Livingston, who is married to artist Heather MacLeod.
“I found out I had hepatitis C in 2001 and I'd contracted it 20 years earlier through a motorcycle accident and blood transfusions at the time. I didn't want my liver to be taxed any further but I got cured last year, which is a great thing.”
As he has switched from canvas to tablet, he has tried “to keep the sense of touch in the work,” says Livingston, “a sense of the hand and the warmth of texture of brush work.”
The textures are surprising. Some flowers look so thick and tactile, it's like Livingston directly squeezed paint form the tube.
“It's almost indistinguishable for some people from real paint," he says. "The word real starts to become questioned in this situation.”
The flowers are all created from Livingston's imagination so they dance between real and unreal. "I do drawings of tulips and flowers and then I discard them," says Livingston, who has painted flowers since the beginning of his career as well as stem-like forms.
In this case, he says “flowers are an apt emblem because of the extraordinary range of structures that have evolved for the purpose of reproduction. I'd like them to have a poetry, a poetic place coming from an understanding of our relationship to nature and our relationship to the world."
Livingston places the flowers in decorative, historical vases that appear painted, then sets the vases on minimalist table tops against blue skies, a spring snow storm or the cosmos. “It's the mystery of our existence and that's why they have stars," he says. "The stars are a bit of a visual reminder of the things that are beyond our comprehension, a symbol of how complex existence is.”
He misses oil paint but not getting it all over his hands and clothes. “There's something very direct and immediate with oil painting that's not as readily accessible through digital media.”
However, digital painting has lots of advantages. He can reach for a large variety of simulated art materials from oil to acrylic to watercolour paint. He doesn't have to wait for paint to dry. He can put white over another colour without blurring.
"You can cover large areas of a surface more immediately than is possible in canvas painting and you can collage things in an intriguing way, and the colour range that's available, it's like a million colours at your disposal."
It can take him up to a month to complete one of these works. “It's very time consuming, it's sometimes longer than it ever took me to make a painting. There is a lot of tweaking and changing.”
The creation process is similar to oil painting in deciding what works and what doesn't and when a work is finished.
“I still have to output these in many versions and put them on the wall to reflect on them. Seeing things on the screen is not the same as when they are outputted.”
As a teacher Livingston sticks to the basics. "It's very important for students to know how to paint with the brush on canvas. It's essential to know how to do that and then if you want to work digitally go ahead.
“My references are the history of painting and my own history of painting."
This is the first time he's shown these flower paintings, purposefully printed large to subvert a traditional hierarchy of painting that puts flower paintings on the bottom rung.
“I was wondering if there would be more skepticism but I'm not encountering that. It's got a wow factor. There's a visual peculiarity that's very engaging …. between sussing out the reality of what are you are seeing and what is the artifice generated through these technical means.
"I haven't been getting why are you bothering, or this is wrong.”
Flowers: Alex Livingston is on through Wednesday. Also on exhibit, in a good contrast, is Feathers: Katie Belcher. Belcher's drawings of feathers in charcoal with many erasures are a celebration of the beauty and intensity of the hand-drawn line and handmade textures. Her feathers, also depicted in photographs, are inspired by the memory of plucking a bird for the first time and Zola's Le Ventre de Paris. A huge wall drawing of a nest of feathers will only last for the duration of the show.
The gallery, 1273 Hollis St., Halifax, is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.