"Dragging a painting down the road is a comic gesture turned dark," artist Margie Livingston tells me. "Originally, I intended to harm a painting, so I could explore the rich potential of mending it. Enacting this gesture was more powerful than I anticipated." This process by which these finished paintings come together, this dragging, is the focus of Livingston's solo show Extreme Landscape Painting at Greg Kucera Gallery.
The Seattle-based artist fastens long straps to a canvas or wooden panel, which is usually covered in several alternating layers of gouache and acrylic paint. Livingston then attaches the straps to a harness inspired by those worn by body builders for strength training, and drags the painting facedown behind her across varying environments, like hiking trails, city parks, and asphalt roads.
There is something powerful, almost spiritual, about her work. The caustic character of her dragged paintings appears to reveal something through the eroded layers. It would be easy to imagine someone claiming to see the face of a divine being or spirit in them, such is their resemblance to holy water stains and the burnt surfaces of toast.
But maybe the figure revealed is nature itself; the landscape not being forged by Livingston's own hand but forging itself, a landscape created through destruction, disintegration. If you get close enough to DAY HIKE: RATTLESNAKE LEDGE, 2018 or DAY HIKE: LAKE QUINAULT, 2018, little blades of grass and dirt are visible, nestled amid the paint, making themselves known. Looking back at you.
Taking up the bulk of the entry gallery wall space is Livingston's 55 LAPS, a piece commissioned by Bellwether 2018, Bellevue's annual arts festival. For 10 days, the artist harnessed 10 panels, all prepared the exact same way, to her body and dragged them around Bellevue Downtown Park. She did a total of 55 laps and 27.5 miles. On the first day, the first panel was dragged around once; the second day, the second panel twice; the third day/panel, thrice; and so on, with the tenth panel on the tenth day being dragged for 10 laps. (It does add up to 55, unbelievably, I had to do the math myself.)
The results of this performance are fascinating. Presented in a series format, each progressive panel is more eroded but distinct from the previous panels, proving that nothing can be dragged in the same way. The only exception is the third panel: On the third day, it rained, and Livingston says water was more effective in helping the painting's erosion than the dragging itself.
A TV screen in the corner of the gallery playing videos of Livingston "in action" ensures that this physical element of her work isn't lost. Still, the image of a woman dragging something behind her in a public space seems bizarre and even shameful—a metaphor for the emotional baggage we carry with us made real.
"Shame envisions judgment from others, presumes an audience, and complicates the relationships between performer, witness, and participant," Livingston writes in her artist statement. And though shame underpins the work she does in this show, her extreme method of creating these pieces is something to be deeply admired.