Calvin Livingston

Calvin Livingston, outsider artist, was one of the younger of the self-taught artists. Born in 1970 in Tuskeegee, Alabama, he was inspired by his cousin Charlie Lucas, better known as the "Tin Man." Calvin worked with tin as well as plywood and found objects. The cluttered small trailer-studio was set amidst a big collard patch in the backyard of his mother's house where he lived with his niece and brother.

Livingston's colors are bold, almost shocking, and his work emits a raw talent. His inspiration came "from wild dreams which transcend the physical." 

In 1990, encouraged by Glenn St. Jean, Livingston had his first showing at Nirvana Contemporary Arts Center in Montgomery, Alabama. Later that year, in an article for Art Papers, Christine C. Neal wrote that "Calvin 'Red Dog' Livingston creates large, figurative works that manage to look naive but sophisticated at the same time," comparing his primitive, tattoo-like symbols and designs to the powerful yet economical strokes of the German impressionists.  

Anton Haardt met Calvin Livingston in the early 1990's and purchased a number of pieces directly from the artist over the years. 

Many of Calvin’s paintings are displayed at The House Of Blues clubs across the country. Here is a photo of House of Blues original owners, Isaac Tigrett and Dan Aykroyd, in front of a large Calvin Livingston tin piece at the House of Blues in New Orleans.

dan aykroyd house of blues

Calvin Livingston took everyday objects and transformed them into interesting and unique works of art. He manipulated his art with a hammer and a screwdriver.  

Several of Livingston's works are dramatic faces that have emerged from sheets of tin with the help of his hammer and chisel.  Another piece, Love Table, is a 50s style coffee table painted with symbols and question marks. When asked about the meaning of this, Livingston said he painted it because people are always trying to question love. His creations followed in the tradition of folk art of the deep South. Gallery director Kent Mueller described the subject matter in Livingston’s work as “religious and visionary with a loose, personalized feeling, and the style is similar to that of Peder Hedman, who is probably better known for his musicianship with the Liquid Pink rock group."

His media included enamels (red, black, white, blue, yellow, and pink), automotive spray paint, pen and ink, and black crayola, applied to found objects collected from abandoned shotgun shacks in and around the nearby rural areas. Livingston's studio was for many years located in a trailer.

With a primarily ochre, black, and white palette, Calvin Livingston created large, figurative works that manage to look naive and sophisticated at the same time. In some pieces he used found roofing tin that he worked with a hammer and screwdriver to produce a stipple effect. In others, he painted on canvas, concrete, a tree stump, and televisions, among other things. Livingston repeats motifs that form a kind of unifying personal symbolism. The titles, supposedly borrowed from popular songs by Prince and Jimi Hendrix, have a narrative quality that hint at meaning and interpretation. 

A past review of Livingston’s work stated: 

"The face in 'Lonely Man', for example, appears to be that of an Indian chief, seen in the angularity of the large lips and nose. Angular, simple shapes are cut through the tin to endow the chief with an eerie, almost transcendental quality; an eye shape and other slit forms are cut out too. Light coming from behind gives the work an ominous presence; the eyes seem to stare, but at the same time are blind, vacant, radiant orbs. These cut-outs yield a frozen, mask-like visage, exuding primal dignity. For the feather headdress is a series of small repetitive paint strokes that form a decorative outline. These small marks are used frequently and contrast well with the larger, slashing crude strokes that seem intentionally primitive .

In 'Talk to Me', the figure's features are made by combining cuts and slashes with large and small brushstrokes. Depth and form are created through the shaped tin rather than with color and tone. The cut-out profile stands in relief against the rest of the work; its strong outline gives it a feeling of strength and solitude. In this work, and others, the tattoo-like symbols and designs on the face relate the work to that of primitive peoples. Here, the eye resembles a pinwheel or sun symbol.
The dominant use of blood red makes 'Whisper a Question' feel more like a scream. Three embryo-like profile figures, with enlarged eyes, almost look like ET. Their open mouths could be screaming or whispering. A large squarish hand comes from one of the figures and reaches toward the hand of what appears to be an elderly male Indian. These blunted hands, with fingers so stubby that they seem to be almost chopped or sawed off at the knuckle, appear in several of Livingston s works. Usually reaching or stretching, these stunted hands are consistently powerful, massive, and fully splayed. Some hands have numerous slashing strokes, as if to portray blood flowing through veins. Again Livingston uses the pinwheel symbol, here, for blue eyes, a color introduced along with gold into the palette of this work. The overall jarring quality of this piece results from the angularity of the planes that compose the background, creating a vortex feeling that is akin to cubist and futurist works. As with 'Lonely Man' and 'Talk to Me', this work seems concerned with human relationships, communication, and perhaps the loss of traditions and peoples.

It is primarily the vehement, powerful yet economic strokes in Livingston s work that are reminiscent of the German expressionists. 'Sleeping in My Favorite Chair' is especially reminiscent of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, and Emil Nolde. Facial features are carved as if out of wood; angular cheekbones and an awkward body look purposefully distorted here. As with the fingers on the hand, the toes on the feet in this work have been chopped off.

Livingston also paints enamel on wood in smaller works that look like totems. Joy Box is a three-dimensional piece standing about 5 5 . the Indian face here seems to be covered with war paint or tattoos. The familiar pinwheel or sunburst symbol is present, as are the small, repeated strokes, dots and a sprayed gold background that result in an overall painterly feeling. Stereotypical Mohawk facial outlines are hidden throughout, and are almost difficult to decipher as in another work in which two facing profiles look like a Rorschach image. Written on the box are verses that read like bits and pieces of thoughts, but may really be lyrics from the Jimi Hendrix songs to which the artist listens. Livingston said, 'I meant for it to be representative of people letting go of their emotions and frustrations. I tried to put a lot of movement in it so that when you walk around it, the work seems to move. I added the poetry, so that if you get bored, you can always read the words'.  

Livingston's symbolism is deep and consistent. His different choice of subject matter further reflects abiding interests. Although uneducated beyond high school, and with no formal training aside from an association with Charles Lucas, Livingston nevertheless reveals a knowledge and awareness of the world in his work that is no longer purely naive. These simplified, expressive works are intriguing both in their style and content."

Ben La Rocco from New York said: "Alabama artist Calvin Livingston called himself the 'Pablo Picasso of Prattville'. Maybe you can’t categorize art. Maybe you just have to wait until you see it to know it. I’ve noticed that sometimes, even after you have seen it and known it, you can accidentally make it disappear by talking about it. It’s possible that talking about art at all is inappropriate. Maybe art’s just an attitude toward things that makes you see beauty everywhere, even at the cost of being unable to identify anything else. "

Calvin Livingston married and had several children. He was a truck driver as well as an artist. He died suddenly in December 2012 of a brain aneurysm.