Editor's note: The following article and essays are reprinted with permission of the El Paso Museum of Art and the authors. If you have questions or comments regarding the article and essays, please contact the El Paso Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

The Journey of Death As Seen Through the Eyes of the Rancher' s Wife: New Paintings by Annabel Livermore

January 28 - May 20, 2007

 

The Journey of Death As Seen Through the Eyes of the Rancher' s Wife: New Paintings by Annabel Livermore is on exhibit at the El Paso Museum of Art January 28 to May 20, 2007. The following eight essays are contained in the catalogue for the exhibition.

Annabel Livermore lives and works in the northern Chihuahuan desert, maintaining studios in El Paso, Texas and Hillsboro, New Mexico. Praised by the New York Times as "fresh," "a tough act to follow,"and the "ultimate in transgression." Livermore is widely recognized in her home state of Texas as a unique presence and highly original artist. She has been characterized by Karen Moss, former curator at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, as "an anachronism who earnestly pursues a long-held tradition of landscape and genre painting ... inspired by her Southwestern environment and vivid imagination."

Art historian John T. Spike, director of the Florence Biennali, has observed that "Livermore embodies the whole spectrum of American symbolist painting." Rendered with thick applications of radiant colors, Livermore's paintings are intensely personal, dream-like explorations of the natural world. Over the past 25 years her subjects have ranged from the ordinary to the sublime, including luminous floral arrangements; the hustler bars and frenetic streets of Juarez, Mexico and landscape of New Mexico. Livermore spends months and sometimes years working on individual paintings and often composes free-verse poems to accompany them. This exhibition will feature 10 of her recent oil on board paintings of the Jornada del Muerto Valley in New Mexico.

 

 

Esplendor En El Viento / Splendor in the Wind

by Jim Edwards

 

Contemplating our death, our eyes naturally look up towards the sky. Imagining that our souls must pass from this earthly atmosphere to another, we turn our attention to the sky's celestial vault. We may further imagine a peaceful or a violent death, resulting in a passage into a new radiant astral light or perhaps a descent into a hellish inferno. Annabel Livermore's new series of paintings ( Jornada del Muerto as Seen Through the Eyes of the Rancher's Wife/ Jornada del Muerto vista por los ojos de la esposa del ranchero ), presents us with an incandescent sky, a windswept, whirling intoxication of flames and smoke, a passageway she imagines must be traveled to the unknown far away.

In her El Paso studio, Annabel paints the sky as a supernatural region, more fantastic than any fireworks display she witnessed as a child. She is careful to include the desert mountains as a horizontal band at the bottom of her paintings composition, momentarily grounding us to the conscious world. Her colors are of October, a palette of yellows, oranges, reds, magentas, siennas, umbers, acid greens, and smoky blacks. She is careful not to use pure gold, a color she believes should only embellish the halos of saints.

Annabel's forms come from the great Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas and northern Mexico. She renders the desert plants as up-rooted, floating heavenward and mingling with the clouds. The spiny crimson flowered Ocotillo twists in the wind as a flaming apparition, and the spikey Lechuguilla turns from green to red and floats in the burned sky as newly transformed sacred hearts. In her paintings, even dirt turns to cinder, as a giant dust devil forms a fire-laced vortex swirling in the night sky.

The everyday world quietly passes Annabel's studio window as she paints. Day turns to night and back into day. Hardly noticing, she paints in seclusion, her silence broken only by the occasionally singing of the caged temple birds in the room adjoining her studio. Like the French naïve artist Seraphine Louis, Annabel jealously guards her studio time, and as far as I know, allows no one to enter her studio as she paints. Seraphine was a simple farm girl and domestic servant. Her only subject was the flaming bouquets she would paint from her imagination, supernatural flowers of dazzling colors that would completely fill her canvases. It is reported that towards the end of her life, Seraphine suddenly stopped painting. Her compulsive vision had died, and for the rest of her life she went door to door in her village of Senlis, preaching that the world was soon going to end.

We are fortunate that Annabel's meditations have not faded and that in her minds eye she sees the splendors of the wind driven heavens. Paint stroke by paint stroke she renders the desert sky transformed. Her molten, windswept skies map the celestial terrain of a visionary. Annabel's paintings illuminate for us a passage from this world to a vision of her own beautiful, foretold death.

 


 

IF AND PERHAPS AND BUT

by Ruth E. Fine

 

The El Paso-based artist Annabel Livermore's watercolors and oil paintings are inspired by specific places: the raucous saloons of El Paso's twin city, Juarez, Mexico; the artist's enclosed back-garden, abundant with carefully chosen plantings and a water feature set against brilliantly patterned Mexican tiles; and Texas' Big Bend country, paralleling the Rio Grande on route 170 between Presidio and Lajitos. [i] Livermore's recently completed ten-panel series, Jornada del Muerto as seen through the Eyes of the Rancher's Wife, is set in the Jornada del Muerto region in southern New Mexico, where the artist worked for six weeks in the landscape adjacent to a small cabin rented expressly for this purpose. Atop a wind-swept hill, Livermore immersed herself in a painted world for five-day sequences, then returned to her El Paso base (a three hour drive) for two days. The artist speaks about the intensity of concentration and focus that was possible alone in that isolated environment: every-day activities such as brushing teeth became as focused as painting , securing the unwieldy four by six foot plywood panels used for the series, or setting up paints and other necessary materials. An arrangement of saw horses, c-clamps, rope, and rocks, carefully oriented into the powerful wind, established the work space and kept the panels from being carried away.

In this temporary outdoor studio, Livermore painted for about three hours each day, from late morning to early afternoon, took a lunch break, and then, on some days, tackled a watercolor. Ten sheets related to the paintings but not studies for them were completed on site, each in one sitting. The delicately hued watercolors, rhythmic and flowing, are marked by the freshness and sense of immediacy associated with that medium. They are as light-filled and limpid as the heavily layered oil paintings are dense and dramatic. Buoyantly colorful -- coal blacks, sunflower yellows, tomato reds and oranges -- the Jornada del Muerto oils were started sequentially, each one on a new day. From then on, all of the panels were developed simultaneously, out in the field during the six weeks when the cabin was rented, with further work taking place in Livermore's El Paso studio over the following five years.

Death is our handmaiden always, and Livermore's series places this fact front and center -- death as exultation, its threat a spur to the imagination rather than a source of despair. The heavens dominate this imagery, more skyscape than landscape, with broadly conceived references to the natural world: suggestions of flowers and under-sea life, starry nights and planets, amoeba, protozoa, clouds, waves, fire, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic explosions, and references to human sexuality, male and female, forms that suggest penes and vaginae. This charged universe simultaneously is celebratory and welcoming, and threatening and terrifying. The paintings evoke a world out of control, and yet convey the romantic possibility of paradise. Their unbridled painterly approach to a poetic vision recalls William Blake's multiple talents.

Livermore is a visionary of immense skill and imagination who presents us with tamed chaos, offering a ray of hope in a mad universe. The painterly presentation of her world emerged fully formed in the late 1970s, simultaneous to her appearance as an alter-ego/pseudonym in the life of the sculptor-poet James Magee. [ii] Livermore was, in a sense, Magee's response to advice he received from two French priest-friends that he "look at God's handiwork a little more closely."[iii] Magee's constant presence and outgoing personality have shielded his shy, hermetic counterpart from the worldly interactions that might have diluted her visionary propensities. Immersed in his wall and floor pieces and land-based architectural project, Magee has maintained for Livermore the emotional space essential to her embrace of experience specific to place, then enhanced by her unique mind's eye and her deeply felt awe in response to the diversity of God's creations.

The writings of Welsh artist-poet David Jones (1895-1975) have long been admired by Livermore/Magee. In a 1953 letter which inspired the title of this essay, Jones noted his belief that no formal artistic discipline "can be real, invigorating, and integrating unless it comes to us with the imperatives of a living tradition." Jones believed this point would be crucial to anyone "who would try to understand the true nature of those problems inherent in the making of works of 'poetry,' under whatever mode, in our particular epoch, in a late phase of a civilization with its many dichotomies both within and without."[iv]

An investigation of dichotomies within multiple artistic traditions may initiate a path to pseudonymous artistic practice such as Livermore/Magee. The division permits both artists to function with maximum coherence and unity, each mode essentially unmodified by contrary convictions that otherwise might invade the work. Magee's constructed abstractions employ found materials and industrial processes that ally their metaphors to traditions rooted in Picasso's welded sculpture and cubist aesthetic, in what Jones might have been suggesting as from "without." By contrast, with seemingly boundless vigor, the mystically inclined Livermore converts Blakean traditions into observations of joy-filled fantasy, what Jones might have considered as from "within."

To track Annabel Livermore's travels, as in the Jornada del Muerto series, started in the field and completed in the studio, is to have one's own eyes opened to a world that is being deeply observed, with reverence. This offers a spiritual journey in which "if and perhaps and but" lead to a closer examination of "God's handiwork," as well as a renewed faith in the nature of art as well as the nature of nature.

i This unique sense of places absorbed also may be seen in a place Livermore created, as a gift to El Paso's R.E. Thomason General Hospital, a magnificent ecumenical chapel, placed in the service of many of the city's most indigent citizens.

ii See James Magee: Works from 1982-1991 (exh. cat., Diverse Works)[Houston, 1991]. To further complicate the identity question, Magee has presented under other names as well, including early in his career, J.R. McCoy.

iii See Patricia C. Johnson, "Meditation on a Medium" in the Houston Chronicle's "Zest" magazine, 24 May 1998, 9. As a young man Magee contemplated studying for the priesthood.

iv The letter was first published in The Listener, 2 July 1953. Under the title "If and Perhaps and But" it appears in Epoch and Artist, David Jones, Selected Writings, New York: Chilmark Press, 1959, 278-279.



New Mexico Sublime: The Celestial Visions of Annabel Livermore

by Christian Gerstheimer

 

Annabel Livermore has been thoughtfully painting in her corner of Texas and New Mexico for nearly thirty years. She often writes extended, poetic titles for her paintings that are covered with glass and housed in artist-made frames. However, her latest series, the Journey of Death as Seen Through the Eye's of the Rancher's Wife, were randomly assigned Roman numerals I through X and minimally framed without glass to focus attention on the title of the series and the paintings. In these "Ecclesiastic Landscapes", semi-abstract heavens make up ninety-five percent of the image and the distant mountain ranges below the remainder. These seem to be either twilight or dusk paintings whose colorific light and mixture of spirals, stars and lotus-shapes reference a howling dust storm typical of March and April in Southern New Mexico, the aurora borealis, bombs exploding, or some combination thereof. To decipher meaning from these works one should know that subject and technique are equally important to the artist. I imagine Livermore envisioning the series "through the eyes of the rancher's wife" who may in turn visualize the hallucinatory effects that Cabeza de Vaca and his men probably experienced nearly 500 years ago when they suffered the heat of the Chihuahuan desert with little or no water and whose deaths perhaps gave this region and this series its name. The words "apocalyptic" and "psychedelic" are suitable descriptors because these mental skyscapes present vast expanses of disorder and irrationality and are clearly not about universally shared perceptual experience.

Comparing the artist's Journey of Death paintings with her earlier, Michigan paintings provides thought-provoking insight because Livermore spent her formative years in Michigan and continues works set there. Painted in her El Paso studio, the Michigan paintings are "embellished memories" of the western, Lower Peninsula. Filled with autumn forests, the more intimate Michigan paintings emphasize the special dark and light qualities of looming trees combined with dense groundcover and a different sense of space due to limited vistas. Curiously, however, both share the same jewel-like light-effects resulting from Livermore's partially realistic, visionary layering of colors and energetic, expressive brushwork.

Livermore also achieves other metaphors of light in her Journey of Death and her Michigan paintings by including mysterious, glowing forms that reveal the artist's strong feelings about nature and the afterlife. For example in the 1998-1999 Michigan painting, William J. Branstrom Takes a Morning Stroll in His Arboretum one notices in the upper right corner an "orb of light" hovering above the ground. The artist describes this "orb" as representing an actual individual, William J. Branstrom "a man who loved trees". The Journey of Death paintings have comparable glowing areas of light that may represent the souls of those who perished there or other spiritual forces of nature. These "orbs" or this light adds a symbolic dimension to these already spectacular panoramas.

Annabel Livermore conveys powerful visions of the twenty-first century American landscape and the sublime. Clearly, the artist's unique way of interpreting the landscape results from her being a traveler who has lived among the forests of the Midwest as well as the cacti and open spaces of the desert southwest. Her paintings intuitively testify to the same beauty and mystery of the natural world that one may experience when atmosphere in its totality has more importance than clarity of detail.

 


 

Annabel Livermore: Facing West

by Alison de Lima Greene

October, 2006

 

Annabel Livermore's Jornada del Muerto as Seen Through the Eyes of the Rancher's Wife paintings are at once immediate and impregnated with an acute consciousness of the art, history, and mythology of the western landscape. While finished in the studio rather than being executed wholly en plein air, these panels -- with their monumental scale, brilliant palette, and swirling vortices -- attest to the primacy of the artist's transcendental experience in the New Mexico desert. Yet, it is also possible to place the Jornada del Muerto in the context Georgia O'Keeffe's 1917 Evening Star watercolors, Laura Gilpin's The Prairie of the same year, and Lillian Gish's performance in extremis in the 1928 The Wind. Inspired by Eliza M. Swift's poem "On the Prairie," Gilpin's photograph could be a portrait of the elusive Livermore or her "rancher's wife:" a woman stands alone in the landscape, captured in a moment of awe before the vast plain and sky which surround and envelope her. Swift had written: "Across the broad spaces/The limited places/Unfettered, unhindered, my spirit goes free." [1]

For close to three decades Livermore has created works, some visionary, that are anchored in the light and culture of West Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico. The Jornada del Muerto paintings are similarly rooted in an insistent sense of place. What viewers from outside the region might not recognize is that the title names a specific valley in southern New Mexico, popularly known as Jornada del Muerto, a reference, however, easily grasped by locals. This arid stretch of land was a genuine "Journey of Death" for Spanish colonials and displaced Pueblo refugees, forced to cross the New Mexico desert in centuries past; in recent years it has been the site of nuclear tests.

James Magee has shared some of the circumstances that governed the origins of this series: "They were all begun [with one exception] outdoors, facing west. . . . These paintings are not meant to be in any particular sequence. Rather they are of a place as seen during times of the day and night, a sky that was there, opening itself up to anyone who wished to look."[2] Seen as an ensemble, the paintings offer a record of the dying light before the setting sun, a light resurrected as stars shoot across the night sky. We can also trace shifts in weather as clouds pile high and dissipate. Heat rises from the earth's surface in waves, and in turn cool night descends. Drawn to pattern and recognizable forms, we discern flowers, fiery flares, and the distant profile of mountains.

But along side these cosmic currents of flux and change, Livermore's Jornada del Muerto is also anchored in the personal experience of the "rancher's wife," an actual woman described by Magee as "a painter, herself, and who, Annabel imagined, must see these sorts of skies as she travels weekly to get her groceries in Truth or Consequences, a town lying on the other side of the mountain range where the sun sets."[3] The fantastic nomenclature of the Southwest captured in this description -- with its echoes of game-show culture layered over the timeless questions of virtue or fall -- matches the collision of the prosaic with the eternal that gives Livermore's work its existential punch. Take time to look with care. These paintings chart the common details and spiritual dimension which, if we are very attentive and fortunate, can shape and give meaning to our lives.

1 See Emily Ballew Neff, The Modern West: American Landscapes 1890-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press and Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2006: 90-91.

2 James Magee, letter to the author, August 31, 2006.

3 Ibid.

 


 

ANNABEL

by Edward Lucie-Smith

 

Visionary spinsters are not a new phenomenon in American cultural life. In literature one thinks immediately of Emily Dickinson. In art, perhaps of the recently rediscovered Agnes Pelton, a member of the Transcendentalist Painting Group in New Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s. It is not difficult to find echoes of Dickinson in some of the painting exhibited here. How about this, for example?

I taste a liquor never brewed --

From Tankards scooped in Pearl --

Not all the vats upon the Rhine

Yield such an Alcohol!

 

Inebriate of air -- am I --

And Debauchee of Dew --

Reeling ­ thro' endless summer days --

From inns of molten Blue --

 

Or else this:

She sweeps with many-colored brooms,

And leaves the shreds behind;

Oh, housewife in the evening west,

Come back, and dust the pond!

 

You dropped a purple raveling in,

You dropped an amber thread;

And now you've littered all the East

With duds of emerald!

Many of Pelton's paintings seem to draw on the same sources of inspiration as those exhibited now -- they are excited, exalted, cosmic. They flirt with abstraction, without being entirely and rigorously abstract, and their spirituality is non-specific. The imagery doesn't refer to any creed in particular. Those who are familiar with the remarkable non-denominational chapel or meditation room that Annabel has designed and decorated for the Thomason General Hospital in El Paso, will see these paintings as being entirely congruous with the imagery employed there.

Yet things are not as simple as they seem to be. Annabel possesses a well-established, detailed official biography. We know that she was born and raised in the upper Midwest, and worked as a librarian until she retired and came to the warmer climate of El Paso. We also know that she began to paint in the mid-1970s, without receiving any formal instruction, as a way of relieving her then chronic depression.

However, very few people claim to have met Miss Livermore. She never attends her own exhibition openings but sometimes sends tape-recorded good wishes, uttered in a quavery voice. Some years ago the New Mexico art critic Bertrand Warner did describe her physical appearance in the preface to an interview. She was dressed in navy blue and white, he said, wore sensible black shoes and kept 'her graying hair tied into a bun."

We also know that Annabel enjoys what seems to be a symbiotic relationship with the well known Texas sculptor James Magee, who makes the elaborate frame for some of her pictures.

If Magee and Livermore "inhabit the same body" -- a nice formulation used to me by one of the organizers of the present exhibition -- then this is certain not a normal case of multiple personality, if indeed the multiple personality syndrome can ever be 'normal' in any real sense. What we are being offered is a fantasy nestled within a fantasy, rather after the fashion of those Russian dolls that nest one within the other. Annabel does not represent an uncontrollable shift from one identity to another. She is, rather, a way of saying the otherwise unsayable, a method of excavating feelings about the cosmos that would otherwise remain inaccessible for the body and personality that shelter her. I will venture the opinion that the shift in gender is an important part of this. So is the spinsterishness, the "sensible shoes" of Bertrand Warner's account are symbols of a state of mind that Magee, left on his own, could never aspire to.

Of course, the apparently prim and proper Miss Livermore does have some slightly surprising quirks. One of her earlier series of images, The N Bar Series, made between 1987 and 1990, is about a sleazy bar in Juarez, El Paso's twin city in Mexico. Now what was a nice girl from the upper mid-West doing in a place like that?

 


 


Sturm und Drang

by John Spike

 

In the spring of 2001, Annabel Livermore literally went alone to the mountaintop. For weeks, in a primitive cabin on the Walker Ranch near New Mexico's San Andres Mountains, she bore witness to an unfamiliar but immediately recognizable celestial truth. The result is this series of "Ecclesiastical Landscapes", at once unearthly and organic, ultimately finished in 2006, and described by the artist as "spiritual in intent, painted in isolation and inspired by something like the god almighty." They're powerful visions of the apocalypse. While many artists -- Anselm Kiefer most recently -- have described for us the wasteland behind the apocalypse, not since Blake has anyone looked so unblinkingly into brimstone on the horizon and approaching fast. Whirling and skyrocketing above a hellish desert terrain called "Jornada del Muerto," where the early settlers could only travel by night to avoid the fatal sun and Indians, Livermore puts us inside the head of today's Rancher's Wife as she reels and quakes at the terrible possibilities alive in her own night sky.

As a retired librarian from Michigan, Annabel Livermore's literary unconscious has often slipped into view amidst the substantial body of her artistic work created since she arrived in El Paso in the early 1980s. As I have noted elsewhere, she is a direct descendent of the 19th century American transcendental painters Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock -- and of course their literary cousins Melville, Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe. These creative miners have excavated deep shafts into the nation's moral underground where the fantastic and the weird are as "normal" and American as apocalypse pie. So, too, does Livermore envision in these thinly painted, often blood-toned pictures, a New Mexican desert sky as full of Biblical shock and awe as anything ever experienced by the ancient denizens of Canaan, New York or Baghdad. She does not hide nor flee from these visions of overwhelming terror, however. Her Rancher's Wife captures them with eyes wide open, in magnificent detail, with remarkable courage, again and again.

Today it is no secret that Annabel Livermore is the alter ego of James Magee, the El Paso sculptor and poet whose mysterious desert masterwork has been under construction for decades somewhere in the off-road barrenness of remote West Texas. The creation of art is, of course, the highest purpose to which any imagination can aspire. What are we to make, then, of an artist who creates new and singular imaginations? The imagination of Annabel Livermore is a monumental creation, which in turn creates its own new works of art, spinning forth in a profusion of dazzling, terrifying, exquisite symbols and flowers. And what more, finally, can we say to explain Livermore's creation of the Rancher's Wife's imagination, whose visions are here before our wondering eyes? What we witness are real Imagination, and true Creation -- and what they give us is the faith to live in our world.

 


 

A Simple Band of Gold: Framing Annabel Livermore

by William R. Thompson

 

"Yes, I design them, my framer builds them, then I paint the frames, and it is less expensive than if I were to go to a frame shop, where it's difficult to find proper framing anyway." [1]

-- Annabel Livermore, 1994

 

No discussion of Annabel Livermore's paintings would be complete without recognizing the significance of the artist's handmade frames. Since Livermore began painting some three decades ago, she has always framed her oils and watercolors with great care. Whether its subject is a lonely watering hole in Ciudad Juárez or a sublime desert landscape, each painting receives a sympathetic frame. Livermore's frames are in fact an integral part of her work and reveal much about the artist and her respect for the virtues of tradition and sentiment.

Livermore's interest in framing was shaped by a visit in 1975 to an exhibition of the Irish-born painter Francis Bacon,[2] who often presented his anguished canvases behind glass with refined gold frames. Unlike Bacon's relatively uniform frames, however, Livermore's vary widely, from the robust, geometric profiles of her Big Bend landscapes to the elegant, gilded molding used on her floral watercolors. Some of her frames are painted in vivid pink and turquoise washes that evoke the sun-bleached colors of Mexico. Others reveal European influences. The ten paintings of the Jornada del Muerto - As Seen Through The Eyes Of The Rancher's Wife series -- Livermore's largest to date -- have each been mounted within a slender, minimalist frame finished in gold leaf. A recessed, matte-black border separates the picture from the gilding. The bole, a red, painted undercoat, is faintly visible through the leaf, lending it a warm, antique quality. Livermore's "close companion" and framer, the sculptor James Magee, poetically describes this design as "a simple band of gold."[3] Its light touch is ideally suited to the radiant colors, exuberant gestures and formidable scale of Livermore's Jornada del Muerto paintings, all variations of the same dream-like sky churning above the New Mexico desert. While most of Livermore's works are glazed with a pane of glass, this particular series has none.

Like the artist herself, Livermore's frames are anachronistic and seem out of place amid the haste and cynicism of the Internet age. They would be more at home in the early 1900s -- the golden age of American framemaking -- when master artisans such as Charles Prendergast, Walfred Thulin and the august Newcomb-Macklin Company designed exquisite custom frames for artists. It is not coincidental that Livermore's primary studio, a room within Magee's Edwardian-era home, dates from this very period. Through Magee, Livermore has also expressed her admiration for American modernists like Marsden Hartley and John Marin, who were likewise keenly aware of the conceptual impact a frame has on its picture. Both carved and painted their own expressionistic frames at times, although the practice gradually declined by mid-century with the shifting priorities and sense of scale heralded by the action painters.

While there are many historical precedents for close collaborations between painters and framers, the bond between Livermore and Magee is unique and inseparable. Livermore's narrative paintings could not be more different from Magee's abstracted assemblages of metal and glass, but both artists are drawn to the orderly and protective structure of frames. Like the large, steel shadow boxes that shelter Magee's delicate works, Livermore's frames set apart her imagery from its surroundings and offer a window through which to glimpse her private world.

1 Karen Moss, Altered Egos (Santa Monica: Santa Monica Museum of Art, 1994): 45.

2 Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings, 1968-1974 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975).

3 James Magee, telephone conversation with the author, October 2006.

 


 

Listening to Annabel Livermore

by David Turner, Director, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon and Suzanne Linquist, Personal friend of the artist and metalsmith

October, 2006

 

The Jornada del Muerto as Seen Through the Eyes of the Rancher's Wife began in the early spring of 2001 when James Magee brought Annabel Livermore to a cabin in southern New Mexico where she could paint, uninterrupted, for four and a half weeks. The cabin was primitive but it sat on a hillside and looked out over eighty miles of unpopulated country. Visiting the nearest town, Truth or Consequences (Population, 7000) required a drive of nearly 40 miles over mostly unpaved road.

Along with her painting supplies, Annabel brought ten wooden panels with her, each four by six feet. The work she planned, a series of ten related pieces, would eventually be finished in her studio, but the pieces began on easels set up out of doors, near the cabin so she could work on them throughout the changing days. "For this series," she says, "I especially wanted to be in the West and look out at the western side of the sky. It was extraordinary, filled with something almost metaphysical."

As her art progressed, Annabel was influenced by more than her surroundings. Once a week, she left the cabin to eat lunch with LaVerne and Jim Walker, ranchers who owned the cabin and most of the land around it. Annabel admired the Walkers and felt a deep kinship with LaVerne. Over the four weeks, LaVerne became essential to Annabel's project and provided an idea for a title that might bring the series together. LaVerne was herself a locally well-regarded painter and Annabel uses words like decent, good, genuine and earnest to describe her, although, when she talked about this she added: "Few people would use these terms readily these days."

In this series, LaVerne became the eponymous "Rancher's Wife" and her eyes are "The Eyes" referred to in the title. As Annabel stood outside her cabin at her easels, part of what she attempted to capture on her huge boards was somehow filtered through truths embodied in LaVerne. This woman was perhaps seen by Annabel not only as a personal friend and but also as an ideal, a kind of "Everywoman" with a clear, honest and unmistakably feminine vision of the world in which they both lived.

The "Journey of Death" was a literal journey for LaVerne. Annabel admitted this part of the title was meant to be deliberately broad, encompassing whatever interpretations a viewer came up with. But initially, in its most concrete form, it came from LaVerne's 40 mile journey to Truth or Consequences. During this drive, she passes through the Jornada del Muerto (literally the journey of death or death's expedition ), a huge empty place that received its name when a group of Conquistadores, stumbling through its vastness, died of thirst sometime in the 16th century. After explaining this, Annabel added a thought: "If a woman regularly drives 40 miles to get a loaf of bread, she'll think a lot about death."

Annabel is greatly influenced by the Canadian Landscape painters of the early to mid-20th century, a tradition that included Emily Carr, a painter she greatly admires. "These landscape painters," she says, "believed that power emanates from the earth, that it has its own being, its own light, its own darkness." With all ten works displayed together in one room, exhibition goers will be privy to Annabel's vision of that light, that darkness and power. Wandering among these splendid pieces it is interesting to ponder the "The Rancher's Wife," and consider how LaVerne might see these finished pieces. Would she understand how Annabel imagined her drive to Truth or Consequences which played such a big part in bringing them into such abundant being?

 

About the Authors

Christian Gerstheimer is Curator at The El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas.

David Turner is the Director, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.

Jim Edwards is the Curator of Exhibitions, Salt Lake Art Center, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Suzanne Lindquist is a personal friend of the artist and a metalsmith.

Alison de Lima-Greene is the Curator of Contemporary Art & Special Projects at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, Texas.

John T. Spike is an American art historian, author, and consultant, specializing in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods. He lives in Florence, Italy.

Ruth E. Fine is the Curator, Special Projects in Modern Art, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Edward-Lucie Smith is a poet, freelance author, journalist, and broadcaster who is well-known for his numerous books on art and related subjects, has acted as curator for many exhibitions, and has lectured extensively.

William R. Thompson is the public relations manager for the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. He has written about Annabel Livermore for ArtLies and Shade Magazine and shares her appreciation for handmade frames.

 

(above: Annabel Livermore, X, oil on board)

 

(above: Annabel Livermore, IV, oil on board)


Editor's note: Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Christian Gerstheimer, Curator, El Paso Museum of Art for generous help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts from the exhibition brochure.

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