I was standing in an art gallery recently talking about what makes an artwork a painting or not. The answer seems obvious: if a painter paints it, it’s a painting.

But hold on. That conversation took place with Deborah Carver of Studio 21, and it was sparked by an exhibition of new work by Halifax artist Alex Livingston, a long-time painting professor at NSCAD University. So far, so good on the “painting” front.

Those of you who have followed Livingston’s career (and he’s been an active artist in this community since the 1980s), know that there’s a catch here. For many years Livingston hasn’t actually used any physical paint in his paintings, creating instead with computer graphics programs.

While environmental sensitivities have precluded his use of paint, that has had no effect on his art historical knowledge, his graphic abilities, or his mastery of the use of imagery. But is something made on a computer and printed in an edition of four really a painting? (As part of the Halifax Talks Art Series, Livingston will address. just this question on April 17 at Studio 21, 6:00-7:30 p.m.)

In looking at the five new works that make up his exhibition Deer, I’m not sure it matters. Based on the traditions of museum dioramas, and on his observations of them in museums here, in London, New York, and Chicago, these works show individual deer in some approximation of their “natural” habitats, presented just as if we were standing in front of a glass case at some museum of natural history.

Livingston has even used photographs as the background in two of the works, highlighting the unnatural naturalness of both the diorama and the museum, and, not incidentally, of these printed paintings. Whatever label we slap on these works (and what’s in a name?),  they’re certainly interesting to look at, thoughtful and visually engaging at once.

Paired with Livingston is another headscratcher of a show for the literalist. Sydney Blum, who after a long career in New York has made her home in Tatamagouche, is presenting a new series of sculptural works called Icarus-Colour-Space.

With forms evoking wings, Blum’s wall-mounted sculptures seem to ripple in space. Designed, at least in part on a computer, the actual forms are painstakingly constructed by hand. Cardboard “chips,” each painted a single colour and arranged in chromatic colour sequences, are wired together onto armatures that create their rippling forms.

Again, we are forced to think about what we think we know about art. Are these sculptures that are painted? Or sculptural paintings? And again, it really doesn’t matter. They’re a pleasure to look at and think about.

If you peek around the back of Blum’s sculptures (and yes, I’m going to call them sculptures) you see the traces of her meticulous process, highlighting how physical these objects are. Stepping back from them they achieve a kind of weightlessness and immensity, a remarkable example of how colour and form can fool the eye into disregarding gravity and even space.

Across the harbour, at the Craig Gallery at Alderney Landing, there is another exhibition worth seeking out. Effluents by Curtis Botham features 12 drawings in charcoal and mixed media by a recent NSCSD graduate who has just wrapped up a year-long artist residency in industrial Cape Breton.

Botham has taken as his subject the industrial sites of Cape Breton and the New Glasgow area: the factories, mines, and mills that shape so much of the past and present of that part of Nova Scotia. The four tour-de-force drawings in this exhibition are large (2.4 metres long and 1.5 metres high), depicting scenes from Stellarton, Trenton, New Glasgow, and Donkin.

In all of Botham’s drawings we are treated to his careful observation and strong composition, rendered in a loose style that manages to convey visual accuracy without being too tight or rigid. In the large works he pushes things, adding text and subordinate images drawn from newspaper headlines and stories, from signs (both of business and protest signs) and from government reports.

Much as the painter John Hartman fills in his works with stories that deepen the scene we are looking at, Botham’s drawings present not just an image, but a context and a history. There is nothing easy or romantic about the history of resource extraction, here or anywhere else, and with Effluents Botham looks unflinchingly at where we are, here and now.

Alex Livingston Deer
Sydney Blum Icarus-Colour-Space
Studio 21
Until May 1, 2019

Curtis Botham Effluents
The Craig Gallery
Until April 28, 2019

Halifax Magazine