Charles Schultz, The Brooklyn Rail. Review of "New Paintings" exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Februay 2012
Sunrise Through Crosshairs
While looking at Daina Higgins’ recent paintings of overused and undervalued urban spaces; I was surprised to find myself thinking of perception diagrams from the 17th Century that were designed to explain the mechanics of vision. The diagrams I’m thinking of are the ones in which dotted lines vector away from the eye of an enlightened looking figure. The eye in these diagrams occupies the point of a triangle from which lines spread out to bring the broad plane of the world into view. In many pictures such as these, it can appear as though the world is being projected into existence by the eye itself. I imagine Higgins’ world forming from a cone of spray that expands with a hiss from the pupil of a spray-can’s nozzle.
In one of her artist statements, Higgins describes the origins of the world she sprays into shape.
“…we crossed over the other rail, through the hole in the fence and into the old auto parts factory with the rusted machinery still stuck in the concrete and the near-horizontal shafts of sunlight made manifest by the dew and the dust in the air. It was almost as if you could stand in the light and discern the exact shape of the filthy broken window through which it came. The atmosphere gave it a shape, a line. That dust, asbestos and what I now know, eight years later was toxic material…but it was beautiful, that area ”
In both her works as a graffiti artist and in her studio work featured here, Higgins’ subject matter and materials are so closely tied to one another that they seem to re-enact the salient experience she describes in her statement. Spray paint is not a syrupy liquid that gets manually smeared into shape with a brush. More like dew and dust, spray paint is a cloud of particles. The paint shapes and colors what it comes into contact with; by the way it diffuses, hangs, and settles on surfaces. Higgins maximizes the behavior of these paint particles by working on a scale small enough for the grains of the spray to remain visible. The atmospheric softness of her paintings is further amplified by the contrasting hardness of the wooden panels she paints on. Before settling on the surface, the paint is literally mixed with air. Higgins sees this as a variation on plein-air painting. Not unlike smoke billowing from factory stacks, this paint is a toxic vapor that is expelled from the belly of an industrially manufactured can.
By being painted mostly in black and white, along with the absence of the direct hand-to-surface contact, these paintings do recall photographs. However, these works are more than simple documentation. They are also more than a formal indulgence that could be easily satisfied by romanticizing the patinas of decaying industrial environments. Where these paintings exceed simple documentation and romance is in her choice of images. These are paintings of an acutely motivated type of attention. Although the images may recall photographs, it feels like Higgins is showing us her world through a rifle's scope-- not a camera. When we look at her work we are looking at targeted spots. Many of these scenes are of spots that have already been hit or marked by people: a lump of clothing abandoned on a pier, shoes left dangling on an electrical line. In quite a few of her recent works, we follow the direction of her attention as she zeros in on blank spots. A tree grows from the sidewalk causing a slab of concrete to erupt towards the viewer like a blank tombstone. The broad, clean side of a white tractor-trailer faces us like an empty canvas. The surfaces of these objects seems to be waiting to be recognized or brought into the present by being touched or having a mark left on them by another.
Higgins’ interest in Graffiti and its capacity to transform space and a space’s status is clearly seen in a recent painting called Cathedral. The entire picture-surface of this narrow, vertical painting is dominated by the façade of a multi-storied defunct factory building. With the concentration of light occurring at the bottom of the painting, the steel and glass building seems to materialize or descend into the viewer's street-level space from the night sky above. A wall modestly marked with graffiti separates the building from the viewer. Its broad, light side pushes its Graffiti tags out of the atmospheric, fictional space of the painting onto the factual, planar surface of the panel she is painting on. By transforming the illusionistic space of the picture Higgins gives the viewer complete, full frontal access to a completely different genre of painting.
Bushwick Pastoral is another painting that contains Graffiti. However, before we find any Graffiti, we first see the expansive, weedy grounds of what looks to be a factory seen through the lozenges of a chain-link fence. Obscured by distance and shrubby overgrowth, we can begin to make out some Graffiti on the wall of the warehouse angling into perspective. Unlike Cathedral this site seems inaccessible. We are behind a fence and the building appears to be over a hundred nettle, burr, and snake infested yards away. But actually we do not need to go that far. The calligraphic loops and dips that characterize writing are found in the spiraling razor wire that crowns the top of the fence like a decorative frieze. The miniscule scrawl on the distant building seems like a faint (perhaps less important) echo of what is right in front of us. Through these paintings Daina Higgins puts us in a very fortunate position; on her side of the fence watching a shimmering hazy cone spread a compelling version of the world out before us.
Steve Stelling, 2004
Steve Stelling, "Sunrise Through Crosshairs" catalog essay, 2004