Catalogue: oddment[s]

With text from Joel Parsons.

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Exhibition Review: Toward Textiles

Susan Snodgrass (2015) Toward Textiles, TEXTILE, 13:3, 306-313

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Toward Textiles

Catalogue for the exhibition 'toward textiles' at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI

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“Joan Livingstone: Corporeal Dynamics”
Surface Design Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, Winter 2008; pp. 26-31

By Polly Ullrich

Look directly east on Grand Avenue, a clean four-mile sweep through late summer smog and humidity, toward Lake Michigan and the white twin spires of the 100-story John Hancock Center in the shimmering downtown. Start walking east and a procession of red brick and frame two- and three-flats roll by: East and West Plumbing and Heating, then The Couch Bar and Grill, the Grand Street Gardens landscapers, Gutierrez Financial Services and "Joseph Medill Public Bath" engraved on one stone front. Turn around and walk west on this Chicago industrial corridor, and you'll pass Quiroga's Detail and Hand Car Wash Center, then LW Direct Floral Importers, and a yellow and blue sign for Eureka Welding. A train horn shrills near a Dr. Pepper billboard: "DALE MAS SABOR A TU VIDA," the sign says.

This is Joan Livingstone's West Side Chicago neighborhood, the subject of Re/Locations (2005-2006), an installation exhibited at three locations in the Midwest and the Eastern United States in the artist's recent traveling solo exhibition "Membranes•Margins•Disruptions." Re/Locations is perhaps the logical next step (but not the final stage) in this pioneering sculptor's 35-year exploration of the sensuous human body engaged within the continuously evolving reality of the contemporary world.

Re/Locations incorporated two parts, and both included long strips of imagery which a viewer took in by "walking along" it to recapture Livingstone's urban landscape within the activity of both body and mind. In one part, Livingstone walked the street outside her Grand Avenue studio, stopping at every twenty steps to snap photographs of the structures fronting the streetscape, which she then digitally composited, enlarged and installed in one long strip along a wall. The art work's second part reached more clearly back to her roots in textile-based sculpture. Livingstone installed a sequential strip of hundreds of pieces of flexible refuse, retrieved on her walks around Grand Avenue over the years and pieced together with her signature edge-sewn hand stitching—a visual litany of found fragments such as wrappers, rubber and clothing scraps, newspapers, playing cards and construction debris, all carefully flattened, assembled and pinned up by hand for viewing.

Re/Locations resounded with the dense fusion of action and time: There was time packed into the work with the artist's concentrated build-up of labor from walking, gathering and assembling—a confrontational practice meant to challenge the speed and superficiality of contemporary culture. There was time experienced by the viewer moving past and through the art work—intensifying into a cumulative series of interactions. And finally, Re/Locations invoked a sense of historical time—identified as a "return" by the critic Hal Foster, who has described how contemporary artists reconnect with past historical practices (in Livingstone's case, textile processes such as stitching and felt-making) to challenge a status quo, not to retreat into nostalgia or tradition.(1)

It was probably not surprising that Livingstone—who as a young artist threw herself into the political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s anti-war movement and agit-prop theater—would find an aesthetic home in one of the most transformative and revolutionary areas of contemporary art practice at the time, fiber sculpture and textile arts. After studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, pioneering as an artist in early Soho, and then teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute and Cranbrook, Livingstone in 1983 joined a cadre of innovative art professors in Chicago who have pushed the School of the Art Institute's Department of Fiber and Material Studies into international prominence. She currently also serves as the school's Undergraduate Division Chair, and has received numerous awards for her art, including the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Artist Fellowship.

Livingstone has said that Re/Locations was a "re-embodiment" of a physical landscape, an "abstracted skin" mapped out into a surrounding perimeter for the viewer to insert his or her own body. This is not unlike the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's description of Cezanne's painterly attempts to "recapture the structure of the landscape as an emerging organism" in perception.(2) Livingstone's long-standing exploration of alternative materials, with their feminist assertion of the corporeal (as opposed to the so-called masculine abstract) and their affirmation of women's textile techniques in aesthetic practice, has gained her wide recognition. But her art has always gone one step further, by positioning the fleshy, "solid" human body as a pivotal location of dynamic processes—of connection, of threshold, of struggle, and of the emergence of identity and transformation.

At Capacity (1998-2001), for example—a monumental installation of wall-mounted felt funnels filled with luminous layers and drips of epoxy resin from repeated pourings by the artist—formulated the body (a vessel or funnel) as a place of filtering, exchange and metamorphosis. More disturbingly, Seeped (1998-2001), a collection of 22 fragmented and oozing anthropomorphic parts piled onto a sulphurous yellow table, hinted at the transgression of edges and boundaries. The artist's use of felt in both works—an ancient, rigorously condensed cloth occasionally used as a filter in industry—formed a pointed juxtaposition of materiality and permeability.

It is this willingness to pursue the phenomenological implications of body-based sculptural practice which gives Livingstone's art a keen relevance within postmodern philosophical constructions of reality as a dynamic flow. The paradox within Livingstone's richly material sculpture unfolds from its intractable sense of physical presence which nevertheless straddles its many "realities"—first, the recognition in contemporary physics, for example, that materiality itself is a slippery concept, based as it is at its fundamental, structural level on complex agglomerates of energy rather than physical "stuff."

And second, Livingstone's use of the liminal, the hybrid, and the "crossing over" to construct meaning through the processes of the physical body offers a way of embodying—from the realm of aesthetics—a singularly contemporary philosophical conviction. That is, our moment to moment, densely corporeal interaction with our physical surroundings is what allows humans to continuously construct a world and live out a sense of self—not a reliance on universal, "objective," abstract truths which have formed the basis of human "reality" in Western European thought since Plato. The human self, says the neurologist and philosopher Antonio R. Damasio, is "a repeatedly-constructed biological state."(3)

Why is this important? Phenomenologically-based art—that is, art such as Livingstone's which suggests a way of living constructed through the perception of continually changing phenomena and not on foundational truths—radically decenters the world. In Livingstone's Migrations series (2004-2005), for example, the viewer is intended to "walk along" enormous swathes of draping, wall-hung felt, a sensuous, hand-stitched surface laid out like a skin. Livingstone has referred to these works as "body-landscapes," in which "one 'feels' the pieces and 'feels' oneself within the pieces."(4) Here, an intertwining of viewer and artwork, of subject and object, places mutuality and interplay as the paradigm for creating a world—not the paradigmatic "inner" (often white and male) subject which has appropriated, defined—and thus dominated—the rest of the lowly, physical "external" world in classical philosophy.

Livingstone's art charts ways of "being" which are not solipsistic but reach outward to profoundly moral and ethical aspects of social life. The philosopher Laura Doyle has written about the potential for phenomenology to "realize in the flesh gestures of resistance," by acknowledging the "lived dynamics" of the body as a site for the critique of "master narratives" implicit in the West.(5) In Livingstone's art, the personal, the contingent and the local are political. At its heart remains a fundamental faith in somatic human life, a reminder that in a contemporary culture of fluidity and change, what gives us meaning is, in the poet Michael Ondaatje's phrase, "the warmth in the sleeve."(6)


1. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA and London: M IT Press, 1996), 1.

2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Cezanne's Doubt," unpaginated,, accessed August 19, 2007.

3. Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error, Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (New York: Quill, an Imprint of Harper Collins, 2000), 226-227.

4. Joan Livingstone, Centennial Lecture, Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, May 18, 2007.

5. Laura Doyle, "Introduction," Bodies of Resistance, New Phenomenologies of Politics, Agency, and Culture, Laura Doyle, ed. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), xii-xvii.

6. Michael Ondaatje, from the poem "Tin Roof," The Cinnamon Peeler (New York: Vintage International, Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 1997), 106. Ontaatje is cited frequently by Livingstone as an important influence.


Polly Ullrich is an art critic based in Chicago.


Catalog for exhibition: Membranes • Margins • Disruptions, Fosdick-Nelson Gallery, School of Art and Design, Alfred University, New York (January 20 - February 22, 2006); Dorothy Uber Bryan Gallery, Fine Arts Center, Bowling Grteen State University, Ohio (October 20 - November 19, 2006); Jack Olson Gallery, School of Art, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois (February 8 - March 1, 2007), with essays by Shannon Stratton, "Sensuous Territory," and Judith Leemann, "Re/Locating Continuity."

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Fun With Studio Crafts: When the Traditional Gets Quirky

New York Times Art Review, Grace Glueck, Friday, January 12, 2007

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Cassidy, Victor. “Focus: Joan Livingstone,” (essay) Sculpture Magazine, April, 2003.

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Brunetti, John. “soma,” installation for “In the Material World,” (exhibiton catalog) Evanston Art Center, Evanston, IL, 2002.

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Portfolio Collection, Vol 10: Joan Livingstone
Winchester, England: Telos Art Publishing 2002
48 pages, 27 color plates
Bookjacket by James Elkins
Introduction by James Yood
Essay by Gerry Craig
ISBN 1 902015 27 4 (softback)
ISBN 1 902015 43 6 (hardback)

Bookjacket text:

Joan Livingstone is one of the most interesting and sophisticated artists currently at work on the body and metaphors of the body. She gracefully avoids three principal pitfalls of contemporary practice: easy abstraction; the recourse to a body already deconstructed into parts and fragments; and the descent toward the abject, the grotesque, and the informe. Her position is exemplary: she works with concepts of surface, pelt and skin, inside and outside, viscosity, heft, mass, and feel -- the elements of a body, always partly but never obviously referential. She is exemplary, too, in her understanding of the deeper history of her practice. The global history of bodily representations bears down on this work, giving it an unusually dense meaning.

"It is wonderful to have an artist like Livingstone working so carefully, eloquently, and vigilantly among the welter of less promising practices."

James Elkins
Professor, Art History, Theory and Criticism, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Author of: The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997) and Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)

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Sybaris Gallery, Royal Oak, MI
October 25-November 29, 1997

“Reviews: Joan Livingstone,” (review) Sculpture, Vol. 17, No. 7, September, 1998.
Gerry Craig

[The] concept of the body as an activated site is also another way in which feminism resurfaces in [Livingstone’s] work, as the female body continues to be the site of political battlegrounds waged by religion, government, and medicine. Her sculptures generated from the 1996 prints were attempts, she says, to understand how the body is at once the object, or actualizer of power, and simultaneously that which resists power. In [the] 1997 installation titled resistSTANCEs, her work demonstrates a shift from her previous hollow forms to weighted and filled felt forms that respond to gravity and its resistance. The saclike forms, filled with liquid resin or rubber, create an erotically charged gymnasium of suspended forms. The rubber straps and hardware reference sex, pleasure and pain, as well as the expansive possibilities of the body as the site for ecstasy, healing, and the accumulated weight of life experience. In Milked (1997) and Filtered (2002), Livingstone makes the most direct reference to gender. She suggests that the power to nourish is not the inherited biology and obligation of a woman, but the distillation of human need filtered through a connected mind, body, and spirit.

These weighted sacs also gather the momentum and erotic charge found in the earlier sculptures, although they strip the veil of a distanced abstraction in which the previous work was shrouded to more directly push the boundary of the scatological. At the same time, the fragile connection of rubber straps, hooks, and springs with the weighted forms elicit empathy for the sensuous relief to be found in the tentative and expansive possibilities of the body. This evolution of density and intensity seems an apt response to the way the body absorbs lived experience. It also reflects the confluence of systems in the present technological age that causes the body to be in a simultaneous state of chaos, manipulation, mediation, hybridization and de-evolution.

Gerry Craig, “The Tyranny of Matter,” Portfolio Collection, Volume 10: Joan Livingstone (Winchester, England: 2002), p. 24.

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Du Bois, Alan. “Embodiment,” (exhibition catalog) Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, AR, 1999.

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Fernandes, Joyce. “Joan Livingstone,” (exhibition catalog) DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Art Museum, 1997.

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Livingstone’s Body of Work
Life force informs every fiber of work

By Ruth Lopez
Special to the Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2001 (feature, Section 7) .

Artist Joan Livingstone has been exploring the body in her work for more than 15 years. She has been preoccupied with felt for even longer.

Livingstone's first attempt to make felt was in the late 1960s, while studying textile arts in Oregon. Felt is made when wool fibers or fur are fused together. Livingstone's first experiment with sheep fleece included boiling it, beating it with a potato masher and running over it repeatedly with her car. She has improved her technique.

"I have an odd reputation as one of this country's most known feltmakers," Livingstone said during a studio visit.

Livingstone is also recognized for her fiber sculptures, abstract explorations of the human form made of felt, suture thread and epoxy resin. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among others. In October, she was named a fellow of the American Craft Council at an awards ceremony held during SOFA -- the international exhibition of sculpture objects and functional art -- at Navy Pier. Livingstone chairs the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has been on the faculty since 1983.

In January, the Evanston Art Center will present an exhibition, "In the Material World," which will feature Livingstone and three other artists.

Universal themes

"Joan Livingstone is important on a national and international level because she is a woman sculptor whose choice of material addresses not only feminine concerns dealing with issues of the female body but also addresses universal concerns of the body as [a] vessel or container," said Chicago art critic John Brunetti, curator of the upcoming exhibit. "She is able to evoke very intimate associations related to the body on a very grand scale."

For the last 12 years, Livingstone has worked out of a former auto-body garage west of the Loop.Throughout the studio are pieces from Livingstone's investigations on bodily activity from fluids to breathing. Saclike forms hang from the ceiling, attached to pulleys or hooks. Large forms of distorted or partially collapsed bellows lean against a wall.

The fabric of life

"I'm partly interested in felt because of its ability to describe a membrane," she said. The artist's technique accommodates this idea. After cutting felt from a pattern and hand sewing the pieces, she secures the object in a skeleton made out of scraps of wood. The piece is then saturated with an epoxy resin and left to cure for about a week. The process allows for tension to be applied to the felt, causing a lot of organic movement.

"I have built large paper models of the forms but they come out rigid and geometric," she said.

Livingstone found a chemist who works on boats to help her develop the resin. "He understood the need for resin to sink in for a boat to float," she said. "We figured out a formula for epoxy resin that is neither too thick or too thin."

After the pieces are cured, Livingstone sands the surface until the felt hairs begin to emerge, giving the work a peach-fuzz quality. From a distance, it's hard to discern the material. It could be stone or granite.

The confusion is welcome. "You go from this experience of a solid, mute kind of object to one that is actually very sensual," she said. "It's this moment of discovery that I think is really important."

Hamza Walker, the education director of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, said he has always found Livingstone's work both beautiful and interesting. In the history of sculpture there has been, for the most part, a divide between anti-formalist soft sculpture and the massive feats of engineering associated with the work of, for example, Richard Serra or Mark di Suvero. "Livingstone's work falls between," Walker said. It is neither hard or soft sculpture but it does have some formalist aspirations. "It rewrites a certain trajectory for soft sculpture," Walker said.

Livingstone has shifted away from using handmade felt exclusively to working with industrial felt. "I realized I was making material pretty close to what one could buy," she said.

Looking for materials in places other than art supply stores is a common activity among artists. Livingstone often visits hardware stores and marina supply houses. She found the suture thread -- surplus from the Korean War -- in a hospital supply store. "I bought it by the caseload."

Interior journeys

After several years of creating hollow pieces, Livingstone began exploring "the mysterious inner space" of the cavities.

Livingstone had always noticed the ventilation and exhaust systems on the roofs of the buildings that surround her studio in the light industrial area along Grand Avenue. "I began to get interested in how substances move between the interior and exterior." That exploration had its logical conclusion. "I began to fill the forms."

Felt sacs were suspended in an elevator shaft and filled with epoxy resin until it seeped out. They would be left to dry and then refilled. The pieces were filled or submerged. Some were heated until they charred. "It was like a laboratory," she said.

"I wanted this quality of total fullness, beyond full. Which is exactly how I feel my life is," she said.

In order to pour, she had to build funnels. And from that came another idea.

In 1998, Livingstone started to make funnels out of felt. Hundreds of them. The result was "At Capacity," a 40-foot long installation of 55 funnels, mounted on walls, that had been through the paces, much like the sacs, with resin and polyurethane rubber. A portion of the installation is now at the Cheongju International Biennale in Korea, another portion sold.

Supporting images

Accompanying the installation are nine enlarged color photographs taking from her work journals. The dated entries contain recipes and the experiments of the day, such as how many drops of color were added, along with the results.

Livingstone noticed an abundance of words such as weeping, staining, bleeding, sweating. "Words we would use to describe body functions," she said.

The journal wasn't created to be part of the installation. Livingstone has always been an obsessive note taker. "I wasn't thinking. I was just doing," she said. The images do add to the work. They reveal an artist who is paying attention to every moment of the process.

So does the stuff in Livingstone's office at the front of the studio. On a table near a window are old French doll parts. Lining a shelf is a collection of antique wooden hat forms: beautiful sculptural objects that relate to the historic role of felt in millinery. And then there are shelves and shelves of books. It's the library of a professor, a fine artist with a strong foundation in the liberal arts. In the spring a special book will join her library. Telos Art Publishing, based in England, will release a book on Livingstone, her first monograph, as part of a series on textile artists.

Livingstone is always reading, often in preparation for a class, lately just for pleasure. She had just finished Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto," read as an "erotic respite" from the dark days following Sept. 11. "Anything to get back a sense of humor and life and body."

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune

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an installation for In The Material World
curated by John Brunetti
Evanston Art Center, Evanston, Illinois
January 13-February 19, 2002.

Joan Livingstone at the Evanston Art Center
“Review,” (review) Art in America, January, 2003.
Marsha Miro

Joan Livingstone has long worked with felt, making sculptures about states of being and transformations. Her recent exhibition, “soma,” consisted of one older work from 1998 and six new pieces dated 2002. A professor of fiber and material studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1983, Livingstone here creates containers for feelings and thoughts about the physical, social, psychological and cultural effects on the body of trauma. The exhibition was a response to the events of 9/11, and the works speak by implication of countless other traumas.

The theme was established with “Illusions of Security (for Joseph Bueys),“ six stacks of 30 layers of gray felt rectangles, glued together with oozing honey-colored resin and topped with a Beuysian red cross. The appropriation refers to Beuys’s use of felt and fat as agents of renewal, a model for Livingstone. The stacks recall both towers and tombstones.

While the felt in this piece was manufactured, Livingstone usually makes her own. The rhizomatic structure of felt (it is not woven but consists of a dense tangle of fibers), along with its isotropic nature (it is the same wherever it is cut), give her sculptures homogeneity of surface and characteristics similar to those of skin. This effect was clearest in two wall pieces: one, “Skinned,” in which flaps of white felt hung from sharp rusty hooks like pieces of flayed skin, and another, “Suck Up,” in which forms suggesting a torso and a phallus were filled with an epoxy resin that wicked through the felt, emerging on the outside like hairs on skin or like drips of body fluids.

Two free-hanging pieces, “Trophies” (1998, long black, erect phallic tubes of sacking cloth filled with epoxy rubber) and the nearby “Lured” (white felt inverted funnel/vaginal forms), employ a dialectic of hard/soft, male/female. Beyond the S-M implications of these tense forms, hung like war trophies by industrial tethers, Livingstone evokes a mix of cultural values relating to gender.

In “Filtered,” the title describes the action: honey seeps through crumpled felt hat like forms of brown, gray and white; it collects in glasses affixed to the wall by laboratory clamps. When a glass fills up, an attendant pours it back into the funnel/hat, beginning the cycle again. The connection to Beuys is here, but so, by implication, is an allusion to the endless process of cleansing, through bodily or other sorts of filters. This work exemplifies the disturbing beauty of the whole show.

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Jane Lackey/Joan Livingstone
Roy Boyd Gallery, Chicago, IL
March 31 – May 2, 2000

Opening Positions, Opening Form

Tim Porges

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

In the same sense in which everything you dream is you, every object of art is a self-portrait. No matter how minimal, systemic, immaterial or large, it’s all you. And this universe of self-portraiture (in which you may or may not choose to believe) is divided at its core. Either you begin with your self, your measure of all things, or you begin with whatever you find in the world outside. For all the recent critical interest in The Body, most non-performing artists start in the latter position, communicating through things and gradually assembling a public self, a body of work. Having done so, you can take the position that no matter how casually Freudian you choose to be in discussing your work, it’s always there first, sopping up the attention that might otherwise fall, uncomfortably, on you. And the work is so much more interesting than you are, anyway. Otherwise, why bother with it?

In the middle of this imaginary universe, between world-as-self and self-as-world, is a familiar point of rotation: the point at which the binaries (self and other, mind and body, so on and so forth) of whatever theory’s in play at the moment meet, around which they spin. This rotational point is, precisely, a point of Absence; the objet petit a to which all fetishism drives, and from which it is invariably deflected by the spin of its essential distinctions. Moving out into the world of foreign objects, the distinctions blur. Even Whitman’s “omnivorous egotism” finds enough of a world to get lost in. What is remarkable, then, about visual artists is how persistently most of them will remain defined by their initial choice of self or other, and how richly that choice plays out in the arts and sciences of identity.

Joan Livingstone’s new work recalls the moment when sculpture and anatomy were advanced in tandem by Leonardo, who used sculptural wax to fill and harden the soft inner organs of cadavers. Scientific anatomy begins there, as does the sense of the inner body as a site and subject for art. Like Louise Bourgeois, the artist whom she most resembles in terms of practice and temperament, Livingstone offers herself to the world through a protective screen of objects, from which we read back to the position and body of an assumed subject. And, though the resin-saturated tubes of At Capacity could be tagged as absent privileged signifiers of the feminine, and the artful jumble of Seeped appears to be the partial index of a native but foreign body, returned from abroad, all this is ultimately beside the point, a distraction. Because it’s process (dripping, seeping, drooping; materials accommodating to saturation and gravity) that is the subject here. Ultimately, the work is undeniably organic. No doubt about that. What it’s resisting, for all that, is definition, especially final definition. This isn’t so much a resistance that comes from the body itself (Livingstone’s body, or yours), as it does from our own disinclination to be defined by it, by what it wants, by what it resembles, by its noises and smells.

Whereas Livingstone’s body is the Freudian body -- the remembered or dream body of organic representations -- Lackey’s body is the systemic body, a body of codes: an archive. Though the universal archive is a perennial fantasy, the archives of the real world are defined, like paintings, by their limits. The object surfaces of the smear and blot paintings are truncated versions of the elegant ellipses that made up Lackey’s marker series of 1996. As well as conveying a kind of mid-century science-fiction optimism, these ellipses imply an infinite, mysterious interiority. But what are the rhetorical implications of a truncated ellipse? Its abridged space is less personal, less interior, and more social, more cultural. And within this newly objective space, what we find are citations from another limited archive: an abridged collection of the total human genome. These sequences of nitrogenous bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G) are a partial instruction manual for the assembly of a human cell, and, fractally, of a human being. Lackey’s hive stacks extend the metaphor laterally: the human body is an archive of archives, like a hive of bees, all servants and carriers of a common code.

Livingstone’s appropriation of the forms of anatomy maintains her work, whatever the anxieties that leak from it, as external, the other-body we imagine and generalize discursively. Lackey’s coded body is a familiar grid and a child of science. As in nature, the image is there before the work: the face you wore before you were born. What draws a line between these two is not so much a difference of ideas, as an initial disposition: self or other. It’s a choice we all make, and it marks us, as long as our chromosomes do, if not longer.

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Shinners, Jaqueline. “Limits of Capacity,” (exhibition catalog) Traverse City, MI: Dennos Museum Center, 1998.

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Laura Russo Gallery
Portland, Or
June 3-26, 2004

Shannon Stratton

Imagine the map as the skin of the earth. It is a wrapping that is removed, unfolded from the globe's mass, smoothed out and laid open to view. Its topographical surface makes a tattoo across the parchment, inscribing the planet's identity in a drawing on its skin.

Now imagine the skin as the map. It is the document that houses physical and psychic territory, its surface recording the nomadic body as the boundaries grow and shrink, constantly undergoing displacement and relocation. This map would reveal what coursed beneath. The subtle fissures on the surface are the result of a shift in the emotional plateaus, and the smooth striations are the typography of physical stress and rupture.

Joan Livingstone's new "Migrations" are drifting skins. These reconstructed, unlocatable fragments have coasted towards the edge, leaving a smooth, blank canvas on which to rebuild and reinscribe; a palimpsest that is more self-healing than self-obliterating.

They are a disclosure. They are maps laid open to view and spread across the wall like personal trophies. They reveal where the interior has been - what realms it has traversed and what domains it has erected - and how those migrations have affected change. They are in the act of transformation however, their fragments not at fixed locals, but still journeying to the boundaries.

These skins are housings loosened from their frames, whose pulsing interior is absent but implied by a complex assemblage of appendages. If the skin protects and negotiates the contents for the observed and the observer, these reassembled sheaths both reveal and conceal the ductwork, hinting at what has been both necessary to operate and what has been cosmetic by choice.

Goethe described the human being as having "many skins to shed before he is even somewhat sure of himself and of worldly things." Livingstone's "Migrations" finds the human body as capable as that of the reptile's shedding or molting and the hermit crab's abandoning and reinventing: a life cycle where the tired is replaced, recycled and regenerated.

Livingstone's sculptures are sensuous organs, their abstractions borrowing as freely from the human form as they do from plant life, geometry and the internal, functional frameworks of architecture. Past work has addressed the capacity of the body as container, and the stress on the membrane as it begins to give way to seepage. Her forms raise questions about the permeability of the self, the boundaries imposed upon it by nature and the imagined or constructed boundaries we assemble for ourselves. Through investigations of the exterior form, interiority and now, the membrane between the two, Livingstone maps the body in motion, leaving it open to permutation through resisting the definition and imposition of borders.

Shannon Stratton, independent curator, critic and artist; May, 2004, Chicago.

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variable quantities
Laura Russo Gallery, Portland, Or
January 4-27, 2001

Sybaris Gallery, Royal Oak, MI
September 9-October 21, 2000

James Yood

Materials. They’re the first and just possibly the final frontier of art. Materials are not merely raw substances to be transformed by an artist into some other thing, nor are they stuff to be altered forever out of themselves and into the neutral realm of art. Materials are art’s vocabulary, its vernacular language, its DNA. Joan Livingstone’s sculpture makes me think of a lot of things, but I always return to its physical presence, its thereness and insistence on intrinsic palpability. There is almost a psychological compulsion to touch her works, to feel their heft, to have fingertips explore surfaces that somehow sight alone cannot circumscribe. Touch, but not caress—there is a rawness in Livingstone’s work, and a power that always takes me just beyond that point where words and vision might suffice.

Livingstone clearly has tremendous respect for her materials, more than enough to take them very seriously. She pinches and pulls, stains and folds, turns and collapses, ceaselessly subjecting her stuff to thoughtful permutations that to us finally seem inevitable and organic (they are neither). Ruminations about the body are often the central strategy used to consider Livingstone’s work, but I would opt for deeper consideration of another art term, process. That’s what I regularly come to, the thought of her in the studio, submerged amidst materials, trying to wreak a satisfying gesture out of an infinity of possibilities, to make materials somehow congeal into attentive and allusive form. It was not a surprise, for example, that for much of Livingstone’s career color seemed a tangential issue, to be dolloped out rather reservedly. This is an artist of shapes and substances, of, to speak of a specifically Chicago tradition, the subtlety and gravitas of artists such as Martin Puryear and Richard Rezac, though touched by a biotic earthiness those artists do not usually assay.

Livingstone’s recent work is both a sumptuous departure and arrival. While molding and adhering had long been her central activities, her newer process of casting epoxy resins affords her with a new investigation of sculptural form. The funnel and tube shape is wonderfully manipulable by Livingstone, but at its core it provides a remnant and residue of a physical process. Lots of associations run riot here, not limited to intimations of the vessel and the dictates of gravity. This technique also invites Livingstone to indulge in new and more sensual approaches to color, and to the creation of specific parts that can take on endless variety through strategies of installation. It provides Livingstone another arena in which to investigate materials, to test their possibilities and examine their interrelation, and, as she has always done, to expand visual interest by sensitive and thoughtful sculptural intervention.

James Yood
Lecturer and Assistant Chairperson in the Department of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois and Chicago correspondent to Artforum magazine.

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