Q+Art: Giulia Piera Livi’s Immersive Installations Examine the Function of Art and Object
“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it,” the cheeky quote goes. “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” And then: “All art is quite useless.”
Rounding out the preface to Oscar Wilde’s scandalous 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the now-famous quote was a clever jab at Wilde’s critics, who were certain the book’s homoerotic undertones would “taint every young mind that comes in contact with it.” Unbeknownst to Wilde, his saucy rejoinder would influence Western attitudes toward form, function, and beauty well into the 21st century. His ideas about beauty, dubbed “aestheticism” or “”art for art’s sake,” make a modified appearance in Giulia Piera Livi’s perfectly manicured installations. Working with paint and objects in space, the Brooklyn- and Baltimore-based artist plays with deeply ingrained notions of beauty and utility by consciously blurring the lines between the two.
In “Come Sit” (below), Livi, acting as the host, beckons us to try an odd game of social one-upmanship. She’s laid out a cushion, like any good host would—absurdly, it’s mounted to the wall instead of bolted to the floor. “I think of paintings as they exist in the home, decorating our lives, using us to give them purpose,” Livi writes in her artist statement. “And inversely, objects become paintings to question abstraction and reality.” The wall-mounted cushion in “Come Sit” is functionally useless, no longer a place to sit, but becomes beautiful in its aesthetic relation to the room where it exists.
Inevitably, themes of domesticity and design loom large in Livi’s carefully posed work. Livi, who grew up in what she calls an “overly curated home space,” pulls from personal memories to create her mannered spaces. “This question of domesticity comes from a curiosity of the curated home space, how the imperfections of home life can be contrasted with the polish of interior design,” she notes. “By pairing abstraction with accessibility, I aim to critique both the home and retail space.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Giulia Piera Livi discusses the value of donating your time, the disparity of wealth between artists and art collectors, and the dynamic between art objects and utilitarian objects.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Giulia Piera Livi: Helen Molesworth, Part Object Part Sculpture; David Salle, How to See; Charles A. Riley, Color Codes; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves; Patti Smith, Just Kids; Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
GPL: My work is based on a fascination with interior design history, consumer culture, and the role of private art collections. I grew up in an overly-curated home space and have always been curious about how the utilitarian objects around us shape how we understand and interact with art objects. I’m interested in abstracting space and thinking critically about retail environments.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
GPL: How to do your taxes as an artist! Too many random sources of income, it’s hard to get it right!
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
GPL: The best advice I ever received was to apply to absolutely everything, no matter how underqualified you think you may be. Never discount your own abilities; if you want an opportunity, there is no harm in trying. I guess the worst advice, which I think I only ever burdened myself with, is going to graduate school right after college. I was in a rush to keep moving forward, but it would have been nice to have had a bit of time to save up and learn how to become a real person before jumping into higher education.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
GPL: The disparity of wealth between artists and the “Art World.” I was recently reading Anne Truitt’s Daybook, and the famous sculptor writes about considering going for her MFA at 53 years old in order to teach, or get a job at a gas station to make ends meet. She is having this conversation with herself while slowly walking around HER OWN SCULPTURES at the National Gallery. Wild.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
GPL: I owe my work/life balance completely to my husband, my family, and my kitten Ugo. They provide both support and distraction when I need it most.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
GPL: In my opinion, generosity in the arts has everything to do with time. Artists and scholars are some of the absolute busiest people, often juggling multiple jobs and projects. So for someone to offer you their time—for a guest lecture, for a peer critique, for a studio visit, for some advice—is invaluable.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
GPL: Fabricating artwork and window displays for the retail store Anthropologie. I met some amazing women there, but the corporate culture and all too obvious commodification of craft was just too much for me to handle. I had a lengthy commute into DC for that job, which, combined with the physical labor of the position, left me too exhausted to get my own studio work done. Like many struggling artists, I took the job because it offered health insurance!
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
GPL: With my new position teaching at Pratt in Brooklyn, I will be spending a lot of time on the train, and hope to make use of that time by teaching myself a few digital programs such as Unity and Blender. I think it could be an interesting addition to my practice, allowing me to expand my forms and experiment more with new media.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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