Though conceptual art has been kicking around for a hundred years, it really didn't resonate with more than a handful of artists until the rise of pop art in the second half of the twentieth century. Now, in the twenty-first, conceptual art is one of the main courses in the contemporary realm.
In Colin Livingston: The Art Bucket, a marvelous solo now at Plus Gallery, the artist has combined paintings and sculptures to create individual installations. Colin Livingston is one of Colorado's most interesting conceptual artists; for the better part of the past decade, he has been creating work deconstructing society's relationship to marketing. He does this by employing the same methods and materials that are used in advertising and promotion, including graphic design, typography and display.
One of a raft of talented artists to emerge from the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in the early 2000s, Livingston is among Clark Richert's intellectual heirs. Although little connects the overall appearance of the work of the pupil to that of the master, there are some key associations. Both exhibit a taste for precisely done and chastely rendered compositions, and then there's the way that each artist reconciles non-aesthetic concepts (geometry for Richert, commerce for Livingston) with his own individually created and elaborately constructed visual language.
To put The Art Bucket in context, it's useful to recall some of Livingston's past efforts, because the current show continues along the same lines of thinking. In the past, Livingston invited viewers to choose the palettes, patterns, logos and slogans that he would use in his paintings. More recently, in The Big Idea, he created an installation that aped a corner of a big-box retail store like Target, with custom-made counters and wall displays featuring pre-packaged paintings and sculptures. The packaging, in printed cardboard, mostly obscured the contents — which was the point. (Were the packages ever meant to be opened? I don't think so.)
This latest entry in the series also plays with how art is made and how things are sold, building on Livingston's previous visual exercises. He first thought about using five-gallon plastic buckets as a principal element in his installations several years ago, when he saw some construction workers using the buckets as ad hoc toolboxes and one had a paint roller sticking out of the top. But Livingston put that aside and worked on other ideas — until last year, when he created this body of work.
The Art Bucket includes six separate yet closely related installations, each comprising two of the buckets, one stacked on top of the other and both placed on a cardboard box. On the wall behind every box surmounted by the stacked buckets is a pair of paintings, one hung over the other. The painting on the top is full-color, while the one below is the "diet" version: The top painting is richly hued, while the bottom one is a lighter shade of the same color. To create the images on the paintings, Livingston has looted existing branding, reformulating logos like the one used by Coca-Cola to suit his own purposes. The idea is that each of the buckets would have the materials necessary to make each of the paintings — but only in the realm of the imagination, since the buckets are actually empty. The buckets and the boxes are covered in pre-printed images and words explaining this aspect of the work. Each of the six installations is unified into a singular, coherent piece by dozens of little inflatable balls, marked with Livingston's own brand, that are scattered over the floor.
The different groupings of buckets, boxes and paintings are each a separate stop on the color spectrum. As you enter the gallery and turn to the left, you begin to follow the color wheel — starting with a piece devoted to red, then moving through those standing for orange, yellow, green and blue, and ending with purple.
I'd love to see some museum or art center bring together the various installations that Livingston has created over the years; it would make for a knockout show.
Across town at Spark, another artist who should be the subject of a major offering at an art institution — by which I mean a proper career survey — is featured in Roland Bernier: Still Life of Words, a small exhibit made up of older collages and newer photos, all of which feature the artist's chosen subject: words.
Bernier is one of Colorado's earliest conceptual artists, having done work that incorporates words, letters or symbols for most of the last sixty years. The Spark display includes pieces from his "Four Letter Word" series, in which Bernier has expressed words in a collaged grid of two letters above two other letters. Opposite these are recent photos of stacks of letters held together with rubber bands; there's a different word in the foreground of each of the otherwise identical shots.
Bernier is a guest artist at Spark; the main spaces are occupied by members. In the west gallery, there's Sue Simon: Dimensions, a show of the artist's classic abstracts conveying scientific concepts. Simon points out that art and science each attempt to explain reality but are often seen as being antithetical to one another, and she wants to resolve those differences. Since I don't know anything about science, it's a good thing that the paintings can stand on their visual characteristics alone — a reconciliation of expressionist spatters and hard-edged volumes along with formulas that represent the different ideas expressed by each painting.
In the smart-looking "Four Forces Explain Everything," a diptych of vertical panels, the topic is physics. One side has the look of outer space, the other that of the sandy earth itself. In the center is a vivid turquoise-colored square, and around the edge of the four sides of the conjoined panels are mathematical expressions done in ready-made transfer lettering. The piece really works.
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Installed in the east gallery is Madeleine Dodge: Broken Geometry, made up of painted metal wall-relief panels that are meant to refer to quilts and other things composed of simple repeated patterns. Dodge starts with custom-made steel sheets, then paints them in stripes. In some, the stripes are defined by crisp straight lines; in others, the lines have been done freehand, with a gentle edge. The finishes have such a rich character that at first I thought she had used automotive lacquers, but in fact that interesting depth is the result of Dodge making her own paints out of mineral powders and tempera mixed with a transparent medium, then glazing the whole thing with shellac.
For Dodge, these patterns represent codified visual languages that signify culture. And you know what? So do Livingston's logos, Bernier's words and Simon's equations. These exhibits all speak for themselves, and they do so eloquently.