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Joan Livingstone’s “Marvels and Oddments”

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Joan Livingstone, a sculptor whose exhibition, "marvels and oddment[s]," is currently on display at Rhodes Clough-Hanson Gallery, likes to go on walks. Most days, the artist wanders the streets near her house, picking up small objects that draw her eye and saving them for later use. Livingstone lives in West Town, Chicago, in a neighborhood where new condominiums are replacing historic brick buildings. What she collects on these walks, more often than not, are chunks of broken concrete and disconnected piping — urban detritus that forms a makeshift vocabulary for her recent sculptures.

"These are not uncommon objects," Livingstone says of the agglomerate pieces of broken cement, plastic ephemera, and fabric that make up her 2014 piece, oddment[s]. They are things that most of us know, although many of them have been altered."

oddment[s], displayed along a narrow table, includes gold-leafed clay cups, fragments of checkered tile, stacked and painted rocks, handmade books, seven artificial crows, 50 felted wool rectangles, dried flower petals, and metal pipe elbows. Livingstone is known for her work with fabric, which she calls "a kind of touchable boundary between ourselves and others," and though many of these fragments are not fabric, all are united by a similar touched, and touchable, quality.

Among Livingstone's oddments is a weather-worn soccer ball. The ball is partially deflated, and the glossy polyester overcoat of the fabric is rubbed off so that what remains is just the soft skin of the cotton. It's the sort of object you'd expect to find hidden behind a backyard fence after a long winter.

Despite the fact that the ball has outlived its useful life (and maybe because of it), it is precious. You want to hold it, to feel where the synthetic fabric has flecked off around the stitching. There is the undeniable physical memory, looking at the ball, of comfort, of threadbare blankets and lived-in denim — a specialness reserved for something that has been in the world a while.

Accompanying the piece is a small booklet in which Livingstone has compiled fragments of text. The chapbook includes passages from books by Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Nadeem Aslam, Sue Monk Kidd, W.G. Sebald, and Milan Šimečka. These quotes are also embroidered, in silk thread, on 50 felted rectangles that Livingstone assiduously created while her mother was ill and Livingstone was helping to care for her. They deal with waiting and walking and a quality that Livingstone refers to as "slow time."

"Little streets wind in upon each other like a basketful of eels; no two run parallel," writes Cole, in a quoted passage from his 2014 book, Every Day Is for the Thief. He continues, " ... letting go of my moorings makes me connect to the city as pure place, through which I move without prejudging what I will see when I come around a corner."

There is much in Livingstone's work that would suggest letting go of moorings, in that her sculpture revises inanimate and overlooked aspects of the city as something more visible when given new attention and context. The painted and stacked rocks — which Livingstone carefully layers with rice paper, turning them over and over again — seem to exude an aura of having been held. I keep wanting to write that they "glow with touch" despite the fact that I know that doesn't really make sense.

If oddment[s], which includes 35 very different objects, goes long, marvels goes deep: broken concrete pieces, arrayed across the floor in a rectangle, look like a kind of cryptic lettering. They have an alphabetic structure. As with the concrete corners in oddment[s], Livingstone and her studio assistants layered these pieces with thin strips of paper, softening them until they appear, ever so slightly, rarefied.

Also included in the show is Livingstone's reflective series of photographs of swirling clouds that appear soft despite their being shown in black and white, with heightened contrast. Another group of photos show piles of debris, left in half-completed buildings. The complete effect is to create an invisible tracery; a map of what is fine and overlooked.

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