Francis Livingston: Shape After Shape

Francis Livingston and Navajo blankets weave an abstract exhibit.

Courtesy of Western Art Collector, July, 2012

Navajo Star Pictorial Rug

Patterns tighty woven and loosely painted make an inspired pairing in the exhibition Pattern and Abstraction at Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "This unique show combines abstract paintings by Francis Livingston and antique Navajo textiles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries," the gallery explains.  "The boldly patterned Navajo weavings were great abstract art made even before that term was widely used, and this show reveals their affinity with contemporary painting made more than a century later."

Livingston may be better known for narrative paintings of amusement parks, movie theaters, and Native Americans on horseback, but abstraction has always been a part of how he sees and how he interprets the world in paint.  The work of Richard Diebenkorn was a catalyst for seeing more abstractly or seeing shapes against shapes.  "Once I stgarted seeing in the way Diedbenkorn and others did I saw shape after shape, flat againt straight against curve against angle," Livingston says.

Francis Livingston, Aspen on Aspen, oil and Navajo textile on panel, 36" x 36"Francis Livingston, Aspen on Aspen, oil and Navajo textile on panel, 36" x 36"

Of his painting Aspen on Aspen, he explains, "This is a leaf as much as as it is a shape against a shape." Its roots in Bay Area painting are evident but elements of collage take the painting in a surprising direction.

It was Mark Sublette who suggested he paint abstracts to be paired with Navajo weavings.  Sublette even supplied remnants of Navajo pieces to incorporate into the paintings.  In Aspen on Aspen, individual threads provide a compositional and textural contrast.  In other, more abstract paintings, larger pieces of fabric are submerged in acrylic gel and gesso to add more (or less) textural contrast to his already energetic application of paint. “The threads and fabric have their own character and imperfections,” Livingston observes.  “I think the painting is successful when a person wants to touch it.”

Francis Livingston, Suspension, oil and  Navajo textile on panel, 17.25" x 17.25"Francis Livingston, Suspension, oil and  Navajo textile on panel, 17.25" x 17.25"

The freedom he is able to have in painting abstracts allows him to learn more about applying paint, knowledge he can take back to his narrative and more “realistic” paintings, “allowing me to keep the painting from being the same and boring across the surface.”

Sublette, an expert in Navajo weaving, has said, “The organic nature of historic Navajo weavings has always fascinated him.  The fact an artist can work for over a year on a textile without any preconceived drawing, all coming from the weaver’s soul and often under trying conditions, I find remarkable.”  He continues,  “It’s the simplicity that gives them their depth of expression.  This same concept of color and composition is what many find so compelling in the contemporary art scene.”

The “organic nature” of Navajo weavings and of Livingston’s abstract paintings combine in the exhibition for an instructive and satisfying experience.

Navajo Double Saddle Blanket, c. 1900-1910, 35" x 55"Navajo Double Saddle Blanket, c. 1900-1910, 35" x 55"