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Art AND: Giulia Livi

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Issue 14: Environment hosted at the Maryland Zoo

Giulia Livi is uncomfortable. On a throbbingly hot late-August day, just before the start of the semester, we sit in Livi’s unairconditioned Highlandtown studio discussing our art practices. Over a blessedly cold Lemon Spindrift I seriously consider pouring down my own shirt, she asks me, about the artist’s process, “Do you think everybody gets to a place where they know what it means?” I answer immediately, “No.” She continues, thoughtfully, “You’re on your way, always. If you have it totally figured out in the studio … you lose the magic and then the work just becomes about creating an object.” 

As two painters who have become multi-disciplinary artists post-grad school, Livi and I agree that discomfort is a helpful tool—we don’t actually want to feel like we fully know what we are doing all the time. “For innovation, you always have to be kind of uncomfortable,” Livi says. It’s this willingness to make work in a place of discomfort, both physically and mentally, that has allowed Livi to evolve her practice over the last five years, earning her a number of solo projects and critical acclaim.

A portrait painter in undergrad at Penn State, Livi now works in the ever-evolving area between painting and sculpture, but she laughs as she points out, “I’m obviously not a sculptor because nothing ever comes off a wall very far.” Her works are informed by painting aesthetics, and she feels very tied to the history of painting—surface and color being her twin obsessions.

Explaining the process she has invented to make her wall paintings, she posits, “material skills for me are expansions on, ‘how do you make a canvas?’ Or ‘how do you paint a surface to be even?’” She is an artist who moves between media seamlessly, always seeking out material that speaks to the domestic space and figuring out how to manipulate it after. She tiles, she sews, she paints, and most of her works are described on her website as “misc mixed media,” a classification that redirects us back to the aesthetic on offer. Although she describes herself as shy, the work is decidedly not. Taking up space, mixing neon and pastel colors, and combining hard and soft textures, her artwork loudly demands our attention.

Livi graduated from MICA’s Mount Royal MFA Program in 2017 and has since been working primarily as an adjunct professor at MICA and Pratt. She has been the associate director at Grimaldis Gallery since 2019 and has recently taken on a more active role in curating shows for the gallery. Working with students and established artists in Baltimore connects Livi to the art world here, and she is grateful for the daily dialogues she gets to partake in as both a mentor and mentee.

 

Play Date, 2018, mixed media and sand, 20 x 30 x 20 feet installation at Arlington Arts Center, Arlington, VA

Inspired by her parents, who developed a highly curated home during her childhood, Livi sees home improvement and decorating projects as an opportunity to play with the curation of a living space. Discussing her plans for the Highlandtown rowhome she recently purchased with her husband, it’s clear she’s imagining it as an entire art installation, not just a place to cook dinners and binge-watch Stranger Things

Still, with her interior design projects, she acknowledges that she is always considering “the opinions of future people that we’ve never met before” because eventually, she will want to sell the house and move. These concerns organically echo one of her favorite books, Gaston Bachelard’s seminal The Poetics of Space, in which the author wrote, “this dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms.” To be a homeowner is to be drawn constantly between anxious feelings of “What have I done?” and accomplished ones of “I have done it!” The emphasis shifts with our moods. This constant duality is part of Livi’s work as a millennial pondering the midcentury progress of her Italian immigrant family through her art practice.

Pre-pandemic, Livi had a number of shows in the DMV area where she changed entire gallery spaces, a process she describes as satisfying because it allowed her to work on a large scale, painting walls that would have to be repainted only a few weeks later, exhausting herself to transform white cubes into uncanny domestic arenas. In 2019, she created an installation for the Governors Island Art Fair, which takes place in the former military base’s colonel homes. Working with the now-uninhabited domestic interior, Livi was able to directly respond to space in a new way, opening up an inherent aspect of her work, which ponders, “how do these objects, that are meant to be fine art objects, exist in homes?” 

Since then, Livi has slightly dialed down the mural aspect of her practice, explaining that she still makes murals to “interact with the object, but that is more influenced by the actual space rather than feeling I need to hyper-curate the entire 360-view.” This more organic result offers the potential for the viewer to have a deeper engagement with her wall sculptures. 

Months later, I’m still thinking about the conversation Livi and I had in which we covered our work as professors, the shifting art market, and what we internalized from our families—on purpose and by accident—from the houses they raised us in.

SUBJECT: Giulia Livi, 30
PLACE: Highlandtown
WEARING: Blue jeans, white tee, white Vans 

Portrait by Justin Tsucalas for Issue 14: Environment

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Giulia Livi: This summer I enjoyed Ishiguro’s A Pale View of the Hills and some great Chang Rae Lee novels. I love fiction with subtle (or not-so-subtle) oddities. Ira Levin, Haruki Murakami, Albert Camus, Mark Z. Danielewski. My favorite and formative “art” books would be Patt Smith’s Just Kids, Anne Truitt’s Daybook, John Waters’ Role Models, annnnddd The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. 

Your work has a very specific aesthetic that could be described as a millennial’s version of mid-century modern—it’s colorful, but it’s also spare in a way that suggests cleanliness, but it’s kind of impersonal and emphasizes material as a core quality. How would you describe your aesthetic and where it comes from?

Things that I am drawn to most out in the world are material and color. And many of the aesthetic qualities in any artwork are subconscious input from our daily lives. We see colors and forms everywhere—some of us are more drawn to minimalism and some more to maximalism. I consume cleanliness and order, sharp colors, and clean edges. And the work plays on those desires, thinking about how we can live with object abstractions in our already curated lives. The aesthetics of home life are so often contrasted by the polish of interior design and I aim to find that space in between comfortable and strange. Homes are meant to be a sanctuary, but we fill them with the latest trend. But that latest trend is beautiful and we want it in our lives. So why not live with it?

You recently took a tiling class at the Station North Tool Library so you could incorporate that building modality into your work. Why did you feel tiling was a process that would be important to your work?

The objects I make are abstracted versions of domestic objects from memory or from research. Before I started using the tiles, I was drawn to soft materials because they are so inherently domestic. After that, I started to get interested in playing with hard and soft [textures] as it relates to those objects. So, for example, making an object that I remember being very soft and trying to make it appear soft, but actually be hard. Tiling was a natural next step because I was feeling like I had dipped so far into abstraction that it could be interesting to be a little bit more obvious about the objects I’m referencing. Plus I was itching to learn a new material skill. 

The workshop I took at Station North Tool Library was really great. Most of the people there were new homeowners learning this practical skill and it was so nice to be learning from this sensible point of view. Although, I was probably asking some bizarre questions, like how many colors can I get this grout to be and what’s the base material so I know what Golden product to add to it.  

 

Pick Out, 2021, mixed media and marble dust, 4 x 25 x 4 foot installation at Abington Arts Center, Abington, PA
Expanded Dialogue, 2019, mixed media and felt, 120 x 20 x 4 inches. At Mono Practice, Baltimore, MD. Photo Credit: Ruri Yi
Untitled Blue Study, 2022, mixed media and tile, 16 x 24 x 3 inches

Building off the tiling, I’m sure you’re asked a fair amount, do you or anyone in your family have any connection to the construction business?

Nobody has asked that! I was a painting major in college and didn’t take a lot of sculpture classes, but I preferred working in the wood shop. I do like the building aspect of art making, but no, no construction connections that I can think of. My mom is an educator and my dad is a scientist, but he also collects antiques. I grew up in a space with a lot of utilitarian objects that were sort of useless or really, no longer useful. I think that is what plays more into the domestic and where some of my interest comes from.

When you say old things you can’t use, do you mean old farming equipment or something else?

No, he collects mostly English early lighting. A lot of things that would use candles or burn oil for light. But now he melts the candlesticks to his preferred aesthetic and then the candle never is lit again. Also, a lot of different vessels that no longer hold anything.

I know you said he’s a scientist, but that is such an art project.

I know. My parents’ whole house is very much an art project, which is definitely not something I realized until I became an artist.

Your work is about the recent past of the domestic space from the midcentury forward, which is perhaps my favorite thing to talk about. Did you grow up in an old house or did your friends have houses that were built in the ‘50s?

My parents would describe their home as “17th Century English Country.” But like you said, a total art project and in progress for most of my life. My work only addresses how heavily curated that space was, not so much what the objects were that I grew up with. I reference, from memory, spaces from the older generations—my grandparents, my great-aunts and uncles. Because we had such a close-knit, Italian immigrant family in North Jersey, there were so many houses, so many different spaces that were all a mix of mid-century materials. In Italy, MCM was reserved for the upper class, so when they came to the United States, they were all really jazzed by the pink bathrooms and chartreuse dens that middle-class America had to offer. Since modernism was linked to suburban expansion and manufacturing in the US you could get those funky colors and curated spaces for much cheaper. Those wood-paneled basements and pastel formal living rooms are where I spent my childhood.

Do you pursue any hobbies in addition to your work? 

Hobbies… I wouldn’t say I have hobbies. Is making art a hobby? I prefer to spend all available free time with my family and friends. I exercise by way of yoga and hiking and biking, and I cook and eat a lot. 

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?

100% Di Pasquale’s. Best Italian sandwiches and ingredients and baked goods I have found so far. I also highly recommend the original Samos on Oldham Street for Greek, and Taqueria El Sabor del Parque for tacos. Those have been my top spots since moving over to Highlandtown.

 

Expanded Dialogue, 2019, mixed media and felt, 5 x 6 x 2 foot installation at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Brooklyn, NY. Also pictured: work by Doreen McCarthy & Kat Chamberlin. Photo Credit: Vincent Como

You’ve worked at Grimaldis Gallery since 2019. For you as an artist, what’s the most exciting thing about working in a fine art gallery?

My role at Grimaldis over the last couple of years has been completely multifaceted. I helped execute the exhibitions, plan studio visits, manage our online presence, write the press releases, attend the art fairs, ship the artwork. This year I am focusing on curatorial work and facilitating our participation in the art fairs to make more room in my schedule for teaching and studio work.

I think the best part about the job has been learning the other side of the art world. I never would’ve had as in-depth of an exposure to the market in the way that I have. What I have enjoyed most is having the ability to bring in new artists and work with the long-standing artists that the gallery has developed relationships with over the past 40-plus years. I feel invested in their work and careers, and they’ve all become important friends and mentors. It’s sort of similar to teaching; gallery work allows you to step outside of your studio practice and be inspired by others, which is really nice. It fuels my practice by continually reminding me that you can’t make anyone else’s work (as much as you may adore it), that you have to stay true to your own ideas. But the art world is a real place where people are living and working and creating.

You’re passionate about teaching art, which is extremely hard to do. What draws you to teaching college?

I enjoy teaching for a few reasons. I like that at the college level there is more focus on mentorship and helping students find their own voices and develop their individual studio practices. My exposure to art making was pretty self-guided, so being able to show others that art can be a remarkable tool for communication and research feels really important. And of course it also provides the opportunity to nerd out a bit—for me, that’s in my color courses. Spending one day a week thinking about color, talking about color, and continuing to learn myself is really amazing. 

One of those eternal questions I get from college art students is how do you find your style? Does having a unified style matter to you at all?

Yesssss, students want to have a “style” so badly! And really it is not at all necessary. It’s more important to find the ability to keep producing—for some that means a particular way of working, but for others it can be totally research-driven. When I get that question I think about Beom Kim, Tania Bruguera, Ann Hamilton… the list goes on. None of the work “looks” the same. But it comes from a particular artist’s perspective and attempts at understanding/inhabiting/dealing with the world.   

 

Welcome In, 2021, mixed media and marble dust, 40 x 48 x 3 inches. At Montpelier Arts Center, Laurel, MD

Do you believe in astrology? If so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?

I’m a Libra and a Virgo rising. I don’t know much about astrology but from what I have read, it’s pretty spot on. 

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

🤗❤️🙌 Are we giving up emojis? That’s news to me!

You have a secret background in mural painting, can you tell me more about that?

I interned for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program when I was in college and then kept working for them afterwards. I was with an artist, Shira Walinsky, for all my projects, and she runs a storefront community space in South Philly that serves the Burmese, Bhutanese, and Nepali refugee community in that area. The murals were in Shira’s amazing colorful woodblock aesthetic and heavily influenced by the community. It was a really great way to learn about community arts at a ground level, and what options existed for post-graduation. Some of the murals would be painted on site and sometimes we would be doing the work in the studio and then bring it out and paste it up. Working at such a large scale has had a huge effect on my personal practice.

Have you painted any murals in Baltimore?

A couple of years ago I helped Iandry Randriamandroso with the mural on the Book Thing in Waverly through Jubilee Arts and BOPA’s Art@Work program. I would love to get back into it. My dream life would be mural projects in the summers and teaching during the academic year. Plus personal studio work all the time. That would be perfect.

 

 

Photos of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt. Art images courtesy of the artist.

This story is from Issue 14: Environment,

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