Margie Livingston’s dragged canvases
and the performance of composition
By Kate Mothes
The term “action painting,” coined by critic Harold Rosenberg in a 1952 article for ARTnews titled “The American Action Painters,” is generally applied to a group of—mostly male—mid-20th Century artists like Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline whose process involved gestural, broad, splashing applications of paint. A key element in gestural abstraction is chance, as the artist sets up certain conditions, such as canvas dimensions, its placement on a wall or a floor, stretched or unstretched, and tools or brushes of various sizes to drip or smear paint across the surface. In Seattle-based artist Margie Livingston‘s this concept takes the gesture a step further in a series of paintings dragged across the earth.
In what she describes as a hybrid form of Action Painting, land art, and performance, Livingston physically drags prepared acrylic paintings across various types of terrain. “I feel an affinity to Michael Heizer’s use of drawing when he carved circles in the desert with his motorcycle,” she says. “I too am claiming land as artist’s materials, but I’m using the ground to inscribe the surface of the paint.”
Livingston stretched canvas onto wooden bars, preparing them with acrylic paint or gesso, then attaching them to a handmade apparatus of cords that wrap around a person’s torso or attach to a bespoke backpack, such as the one included as part of Day Hike: Lake 22. “I see the dragged works as non-painting painting, seeking ways to surprise myself,” she explains, combining chance procedures with inherent experimentation. Some pieces were dragged along trails in natural wilderness, while others, such as Artel, were pulled across the paved and manicured surfaces of urban areas. Each work is a documentation of a specific journey, an artifact of a performance and a series of interactions.
Using my body as material pits my natural introversion against my desire to perform; the absurdity of dragging a painting triggers shame. Shame envisions judgment from others, presumes an audience, and complicates the relationships between performer, witness, and participant.
The pieces also raise questions about to whom land belongs—if it does at all—as she considers her place on the mountain trails where she walked and worked within the Snohomish and Puget Sound Salish territories. “Consequently, dragging a painting on a hike has become a time of reflection, and a place to contemplate my responsibilities as a person of privilege,” she explains. Within the larger context of human occupation of space, from wilderness paths to urban pavements, the resulting paintings become an archive of her individual, distinct relationship with a place, and a meditation on the worldwide impact humans continue to have on the land and environment.
Header image: Documentation of the artist making Day Like: Lake 22 at Granite Falls, Washington, in 2018. Photograph by Will Darling.
Performance documentation video for Artel, 2017, was commissioned by Emily Zimmerman for Material Performance at the University of Washington, Jacob Lawrence Gallery. In collaboration with: Susanna Bluhm, Philippe Hyojung Kim, Paul Komanda, Nicolas Nyland, and Amanda Pickler. Video by Ruth Kazmerzak and Daniel Glynn with editing by Ruth Kazmerzak. This project was supported, in part, by a grant from 4Culture.
All images shared courtesy of the artist, Greg Kucera Gallery, and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.