Alchemy of Paint: A Studio Visit with Margie Livingston and Isaac Quigley

Margie Livingston (NAP #61) has spent the last couple of years pouring, compacting and carving paint. Her experimentation with the limit of paint’s sculptural malleability has culminated in a (still-evolving) process by which she manufactures sheets of marbled, plastic acrylic that are later rolled, folded and cut into a number of forms, often posts or logs. Isaac Quigley indulges the materiality of paint in a different way, often pushing his canvases toward the brink of assemblage or bricolage. His paintings, which take up to a year to complete, are splashed with landslides of color, overlaid with delicate drawing, and embedded with paper, plastic and textiles.

We convened at Livingston’s studio in the SODO neighborhood of Seattle to discuss some of the shared characteristics of their work. Quite the host, Livingston has laid out a spread of Coconut Bliss, homemade peach tarts and tea for us. It’s the first time the two artists have met, and they start talking right away about paper towels and Rauschenberg. - Amanda Manitach, Seattle Contributor

Margie Livingston and Isaac Quigley.

Margie Livingston: You use paper towels in your paintings? That’s not very archival! (laughter)

Isaac Quigley: A lot of my stuff used to incorporate paper towels, just because they were around the studio, being used to clean stuff up. Crusty, soaked in paint. I began collecting them, bunching them up and tying them with string. After a while of lying around the studio, that kind of material becomes part of the process, integral to the painting.

Amanda Manitach: It accumulates an aura....

ML: I was concerned about my materials being strictly archival until I started thinking about Rauschenberg’s use of material.

IQ: He didn’t give a damn, from what I understand.

ML: Well that’s what I used to think, then I realized that something like Cardbirds is an edition of archival material made to look like corrugated cardboard.

AM: Some artists tell me they’ll let museums deal with conservation of non-archival materials in the future. Let them deal with your shitty, crumbling paper! (laughter) Let’s talk about process since you two have very process-intensive practices.

Isaac Quigley | Shifty Eyes, 2010, acrylic, paper, fake flower on canvas, 18 x 24 inches.

ML: My work is all about process at this point. It’s about the material of the paint and exploring what you can and can’t do with it. I’ve been experimenting with paint for six years now, and the basic procedures are pouring, mixing color, layering, cutting, stretching, sawing, sanding...more layering, drilling.

IQ: Do you ever shape it?

ML: I have pieces that I’ve shaped with a saw. Does that count?

IQ: I mean when it’s half-dry, the consistency of clay or something....

ML: I haven’t ever worked with paint when it’s in that stage, wet and thick at the same time. I work with very liquid paint and I made a conscious decision at the outset not to use modeling paste, which would give it the consistency of plaster I wanted to use liquid, painty paint.

AM: You like procedural restrictions, don’t you? You used to have a severely restricted color palette, which I see you’ve recently transgressed!

Margie Livingston | Detail of 90 Color Tests, 2012, acrylic and grommets, 90 squares, 8 x 8 inches each, 78 x 86 overall.

ML: For the first five years I just used red, yellow, black, and white because I wanted to be free to experiment with the material and not worry about the color, and those four colors can give you a great acid green, orange and purple. For my upcoming show I wanted to explicitly examine other colors. While I was at a residency in Switzerland earlier this year, I made 90 color tests with all these different colors.

IQ: I like pink a lot. I use a lot of muddy colors to evoke soil, earth, landscape. I use mistints, which are usually already murky colors to begin with, colors nobody else wants.

Isaac Quigley | Atmospheric heat with face, acrylic, sharpie, paper, clothing, ribbon, lace, fake leaves, fake flowers, and glitter on canvas, 60 x 48 inches.

Isaac Quigley | Atmospheric Heat, (greenhouse effect) (detail), 2012  acrylic, paper, sharpie, fake flowers, fake leaves, ribbon, lace, fabric, and glitter on canvas, 72 x 60 inches.

AM: You both started with an interest painting landscapes, horizon lines, vanishing points, stuff like that, and for both of you that’s transitioned to using paint as a sculptural medium. Specifically, the paint has become a substitute for soil or natural materials found in the landscape.

ML: The landscape has been important to me my whole life so it seemed natural to me to include that in my painting practice. Even when I’m making objects, I still am referencing landscape in my mind. The cubes I make are a reference to architectural grids and minimalism, though a very understated reference. And now I have the wood which is reference old growth—or in this case new growth—timber.

IQ: I moved toward landscape as a conceptual starting point for paintings. I originally thought of landscapes as formulaic and generic—literally, as genre painting—and used it a bit ironically. Over time, my focus shifted and I began appreciating and appropriating those same aspects of the genre I considered formulaic. Formulae, in this case, became a foundation and framework, something with a predefined visual language that I could reimagine and play around with.

Isaac Quigley | Transfer (Tectonic Plate Boundary) (detail), 2011, acrylic, sharpie, paper, ribbon, string, fabric, lace, fake flowers, fake leaves, and glitter on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.

AM: You studied plate tectonics for this series?

IQ: That and atmosphere. With plate tectonics I realized I love the idea of two large things coming together, rubbing, colliding, activating and subduing, creating mountains, volcanos. It can be read as a metaphor for human interaction.

AM: You talk a lot about emotive qualities in your work. Margie, would you say your procedures are expressive at all?

ML: Yes, there’s emotion, but most of it’s secret. These sheets that I’ve been pouring are like an ab-ex parody. With all this paint flying all over the place, it’s very physical and you could say it’s all one big expression. But I usually want the expression hidden. I cover it up with layers. I fold it up like a blanket. I don’t want it to be about that. The whole beauty thing is difficult. A little bit is ok, but I don’t want to just make useless eye candy. So this has been my strategy: I make them, I love them, then I fold them up and no one else gets to see them. People lately have been coming into the studio to see the sheets, and begging me to show the whole pour. They hate that I hide it. They want me to stop.

AM: Because people want certain things from artists. They want the pretty eye candy or they want a piece of your soul, so to speak. Withholding is provocative.

ML: There’s something about withholding desire. There’s a bunch of beauty in there, but you can only see some of it.

Margie Livingston | Painting Folded 10 Times, 2012, acrylic on Alupanel on backing frame, 6 x 12 x 12 inches.

Margie Livingston, works in progress.

AM: Does this hesitancy to project desire have anything to do with being female? With Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou coming to Seattle Art Museum, female-ness is on everyone’s minds, including my own.

ML: I don’t know. I don’t think so. It’s more of a strategic move to not be discounted by making beautiful work. If someone could see that it would be beautiful if it were unfolded, they have to do some extrapolation to get there. At the same time, I would say there is an element of subverting the macho male gesture in this work....domesticating ab ex.

IQ: My expression also tends to be hidden. Not because I cover it, but because no one knows how to read it; it can definitely verge on illegible. Though other times, as in the Atmosphere series, it’s quite explicit and literal. An orange ring of warmth in one of my paintings refers to the comfort and heat of the sun and the greenhouse effect. The expressiveness tends to be sexual too and is explicit in the use of certain materials, like lace.

Isaac Quigley | Subduction Zone (Tectonic Plate Boundary) (detail), 2010 acrylic, sharpie, paper, ribbon, string, fake leaves, fake flowers, fabric, lace, and glitter on canvas, 72 x 60 inches.

Isaac Quigley | Subduction Zone (Tectonic Plate Boundary) (detail),  2010 acrylic, sharpie, paper, ribbon, string, fake leaves, fake flowers, fabric, lace, and glitter on canvas, 72 x 60 inches.

AM: Speaking of that, what are all the materials you use (besides paper towels)?

IQ: I usually prefer to work on canvas so I can cut into it. I like to manipulate, gouge, bend and fold it. I love the irony of using plastics to create organic, muddy forms. I use a lot of crumpled, layered paper and viscous gels and medium. And lots of weird random craft supplies, like plastic flowers. I love sourcing material from craft stores. Going back to Rauschenberg or Duchamp, I like the idea of incorporating readymades into a painting.

Isaac Quigley | Figurine, 2010, paper, string, ribbon, fishing line, acrylic, plastic, and metal, aprx 10 feet tall.

ML: That’s interesting because lately I’ve been thinking of the poured sheet as a kind of readymade.

AM: Which is ironic considering all the labor that goes into pouring a sheet.

IQ: But it makes sense if it feels mechanical.

ML: I’m trying to figure out how to make a machine that would pour them for me, so I could make them faster. But I have no time right now.

AM: How do you pour exactly?

Margie Livingston | Rough-Cut Post in progress, 2012, acrylic, 3.5 x 3.5 x 96 inches.

Margie Livingston | Rough-Cut Post in progress, 2012, acrylic, 3.5 x 3.5 x 96 inches.

ML: I put all the colors in a trough and pour at the same time. They mix as they pour out. These four sheets are going to be rolled into a log and then cut into a 3 x 3 plank.

AM: How much paint is that?

ML: Twenty gallons for four sheets, which makes one log. I was fortunate to win a lot of awards in recent years which have helped sustain the scale of this work, but it’s kind of embarrassing how ungreen it is. None of the paint is renewable and its carbon footprint is pretty big. That’s why I take the bus!

Margie Livingston | Rough Cut Block, 2012, acrylic, 12 x 9 x 9 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

AM: Are you going to continue in this direction or work on something totally different next?

ML: That’s a good question. There are still some things I want do to with this, but it’s an intense practice, using twenty gallons of paint at time, working this large. I have a few shows scheduled out, so I’ll be working this way for a few years at least...

Margie Livingston’s Paint Objects is on view at Greg Kucera Gallery through November 10, 2012. Isaac Quigley’s Diagrams and Constructions of Atmospheric Heat will be on view at Vignettes on Thursday, November 15th.


Born in Vancouver, Washington, Margie Livingston received her M.F.A. in painting from the University of Washington. Her awards include a residency at the Shenzhen Fine Art Institute in Shenzhen, China, in 2008, a Fulbright Scholarship in 2001, and the Arts Innovator Award in 2010. She is represented by Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Livingston’s work resides in the permanent collections of the Shenzhen Fine Art Institute, the Seattle Art Museum, the City of Seattle, King County, and the Henry Art Gallery. She has been a member of the Soil Artist Collective since 2000.

Isaac Quigley studied painting, sculpture, and video at the University of California Berkeley where he got his BA before moving to the Seattle area to live and work.  He doesn’t follow current events, and he would like to climb a very tall mountain.    

 Amanda Manitach is a writer and artist based in Seattle.

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