The Young & The Gonzo: Axel Livingston’s solo exhibition at the Gonzo Gallery
Axel Livingston, 19, in the spotlight at Gonzo Gallery
At 19, Axel Livingston is a rare art phenom from Aspen, where teen artists infrequently break out of youth-focused exhibitions and where locally based artists – of any age – are not often represented in commercial galleries.
The young artist will open a solo exhibition at the Gonzo Gallery on Saturday, sharing the creative fruits of his first year as a full-time working artist. He opted to take a gap year after graduating from Aspen High School in the spring of 2020 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, during which he produced the 10 paintings and two sculptures now on view and on sale at the Gonzo.
Showing at the Gonzo, the local counterculture hub where works by Livingston’s creative heroes Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman often hang on the walls, is a gratifying moment.
“I come by the Gonzo like once a week with my friends, just to look at it all,” Livingston said this week while working on installing paintings with his father. “Obviously it was a dream of mine to have my work in here, but I never thought it would actually happen.”
Gonzo Gallery director D.J. Watkins heard about Livingston and saw some of his work as the teen drew attention with a February 2020 exhibition at the Collective in Snowmass Village and by winning the state Scholastic Gold Key award for student artists and the national American Vision Award. Watkins floated the idea of producing a solo show for Livingston at the Gonzo about a year ago, which gave the ambitious young artist a tangible goal – to make new work that would sufficiently impress Watkins and land him that show.
“Ever since he threw me that bone I just went off, spending days and days and days in my studio painting these pieces,” Livingston said.
His style is largely improvisatory. The 10 paintings in this show are darkly funny visual riffs on themes from Thompson’s work and on the visual vocabulary that Steadman has indelibly attached to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and other works. In these paintings Livingston imagines Thompson’s iconic “red shark” Chevy Caprice morphing into an actual shark, includes distorted visions of the “Thompson for Sheriff” posters from the author’s 1970 “Freak Power” campaign for sheriff. There are grotesque creatures, like a pair of frog legs on a toilet, that call to mind “Fear and Loathing” imagery, and there are Steadman-esque paint spatters.
“I felt that all this information, I absorbed it, and then I spilled it back out,” Livingston said. “I have really bad OCD. So I need to get the shit out of me.”
But along with those homages and riffs on gonzo iconography, Livingston is finding his own voice in these pieces – using motifs like his scrawls and scribbles of improvisatory text and poetry, and recurring uses of the wilderness scenery that has shaped this Colorado kid’s ideas of abstraction.
“I grew up in the valley and I love the wilderness,” he said. “A lot of my ideas for things I take towards my painting come from experiences I’ve had in the wilderness, and places I want to go.”
What: Axel Livingston exhibition
Where: Gonzo Gallery, 625 E. Hyman Ave
When: May 1-14, opening reception Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
The works are made mostly with acrylic paint, some graphite drawing and pastels, and with an inventive use of recycled paint in dried blobs and a stray nail here and there that create a textured and pimpled surfaces on wood and canvas (one work is on a door Livingston took from a Red Mountain tear-down his father was working on last year).
Along with the paintings, he’s made two sculptures for the show, one from a disturbingly busted Chanel mannequin that he got from Aspen High School’s theater department.
Livingston embraces the grimy side of his work, though he’s already seen it turn off some viewers. One memorable interaction, when Livingston had a two-day offseason show at the Aspen Hatter in fall 2019, underscored his punk rock sensibility.
“This lady came in there and she’s like, ‘Your work is horrendous,’” he recalled with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Hell yeah. I want people like you to be pissed off.’”
In the fall, Livingston is headed to Detroit for art school at the College for Creative Studies.
He went to grade school the Aspen Community School next door to Thompson’s Owl Farm and absorbed the legend of Thompson from his classmates and, as a child, from community figures from Thompson’s inner circle like filmmaker Bob Rafelson and Sheriff Bob Braudis. Emerging out of pubescent angst, he’s grateful to have grown up here in that milieu and with the creative teachers who encouraged him at the Community School and Aspen High.
“I was all angry when I was in middle school, like, ‘They’re all lame and whatever,’” he said. “Now, looking back, they’re all really cool people. I’m so thankful being in this community.”
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It’s official: The Snowmass Free Concert Series will return to Fanny Hill in true form this summer, starting June 10.