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Alex Livingston in Review: Blurring the Boundaries

A purist might find fault with Alex Livingston describing his newest work as painting—but that doesn’t stop him. The works look, after all, rather like large abstract paintings, confronting gallery visitors with a cacophonous frenzy of vibrant colours and energetic, loopy lines. Livingston calls them paintings because, created as they were with ink on gessoed canvas, they are, sort of—but also sort of not.

Created with the help of a digital intermediary—in this case a computer with imaging software —the nine works in this show are the result of the artist drawing on an electronic tablet rather than directly onto the canvas. The densely layered, looping lines that criss-cross the bright backgrounds are manipulated using software “brushes,” with each painted “stroke” using a different filter device for a variety of effects. The result is a surreal combination of swooping lines comprised of chains of tiny flowers, thick ropes, braided hair and fuzzy strokes that look like long caterpillars.

Livingston, who teaches at NSCAD University, is clearly trying to challenge expectations about what paintings are and aren’t, pushing the boundaries of the medium by eschewing the conventional determinants—most notably the artist’s hand. Though the paintings still begin with wrist gestures (captured on the digital tablet), the human touch is palpably absent. As lively and intriguing as they are, there’s a resulting coolness—a flat, almost cartoon-like quality—that keeps the viewer at a distance. The artist must still grapple with the same issues of composition, colour and texture that he might with a conventional painting, but the digital middleman keeps us at bay. The intimacy of the brush on canvas is missing.

Still, the works are well worth considering. Far from trying to pass themselves off as masterpieces of digital art, they are visual experiments, exploring effects of technology on an age-old art form. The works blur the boundaries, straddling old and new, inviting painting to join the 21st century. (1223 Lower Water St, Halifax NS)

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