Paul Higgs: Material Energy

Published August 25, 2020
Paul Higgs, 'Course Plotter'

Art is revolution, improvisation, impetus, enthusiasm, record-setting, elasticity, elegance, generosity, superabundance of goodness, drowning in the Absolute, struggle against every hindrance, an aerial dance on the burning summits of passion…

Filippo Marinetti


“Scattering” in physics, is what happens when waves of energy are forced to change direction due to a collision with various particles. The results are unpredictable and hard to calculate. Something very similar goes on in Paul Higgs’s paintings, albeit with no scientific explanation. A typical picture resembles a mass of tiny fragments in perpetual collision, seeking an equilibrium that is never quite achieved.

Higgs will work on a painting for months or even years, adding patches of colour, strips of wood, lines of string, or anything else that helps him tell the story evolving in his mind. There may be a ruling idea at the heart of every work but the countless small collisions that occur as his surfaces grow in complexity, tend to obscure the original subject. In his smaller pictures the accumulation of detail can be overwhelming, but with this show he has found a scale that allows a new clarity of structure.

In the works that refer to the Giza Plateau, by daylight and darkness, Higgs is drawing on his impressions of Egypt, a country he has visited on three occasions in recent years. One can presume that a line of sharply defined triangles refers schematically to the Pyramids, those ancient structures that dominate every image of the plateau. Higgs uses these geometric forms to create order within the composition, offsetting his clusters of marks and accretions. Working on a grander scale he has enjoyed the luxury of balancing small, densely-packed areas against flat expanses of paint; concentrating on one principal tonal value, interrupted and energised by bursts of colour.

Paul Higgs, ‘Daytime-Giza-Plateau’

The resulting pictures, with their faint echoes of the refined ‘constructed paintings’ of Colin Lanceley, are arguably the most mature and satisfying works Higgs has produced. Although they remain abstractions these paintings make no attempt to conceal their sources of inspiration. Daytime-Giza-Plateau is a landscape, with a horizon line that signals a clear demarcation between earth and sky. The pale, sandy field that occupies the bottom two-thirds of the picture is an arena, perhaps a stage, packed with figures and small structures. All the grass-roots activity of the local tourist industry is being played out in the shadow of Pyramids.

With nightfall that simplicity gives way to a more mysterious atmosphere. In Underworld-Giza-Plateau the same triangular shapes loom in the background, but now the picture is divided into many components linked by torn pieces of paper, thin strips of wood, and even a series of tiny ladders that invite us to ascend or descend between parts of the composition. It’s almost as if we are peering into a suite of rooms in which memories or dreams are being re-enacted. The plateau by night could just as easily be a port, in which we glimpse the hulking outlines of ships, the glimmer of stars and water. Observed forms are gradually submerged in the realm of the imagination.

Nothing else in this exhibition is as literal as the Giza plateau paintings. A work such as Hurstville-Platform-Wall, features a geometric motif that echoes the Egyptian works, but the ostensible subject is the blurred, fragmented impressions we receive as a train pulls into and out of a station. Small clock faces record the stages of the journey, their circular shapes disrupting the play of sharp, triangular forms.

Paul Higgs, ‘Hurstville-Platform-Wall’

The paintings based on railway station platforms are as close as Higgs comes to the aesthetics of the Futurists, who tried to convey the “universal dynamism” of modern life in works fractured into a succession of overlapping planes. Futurism, as the epigraph from Marinetti reminds us, was an extravagant, aggressive movement that worshipped speed and war, eventually falling apart like a engine destroyed by its own excessive vibrations.

Higgs resembles these artists in his embrace of simultaneity – a desire to record everything that is happening around him (and in his own thoughts), within the same frame. Think of both a time frame and the material frame that creates a boundary for the picture,  separating it from the wall and the world.

He departs from Marinetti’s crew in his use of papier collé and assemblage techniques. Despite the geometrical underpinnings of these new works, the clean lines of the machine are nowhere to be found. Instead, Higgs’s “paint constructions” are as raw as the décollage works of Jean Villeglé or Raymond Hains, who made pictures by tearing strips from posters they had glued together. Superficially, Higgs may appear to share the same avant-garde intention of erasing the boundaries between life and art, but one suspects his works are more subjective, more open to personal narratives.

This is evident in Course Plotter, which may or may not refer to the artist’s experiences as a teacher. If what we see is the outline of a course, it’s also a record of obstructions and frustrations, as Higgs deals with the age-old problem of how to convey the power of art to a group of students with very different levels of ability and commitment. In this conspicuous display of scattered energies he is hanging his ideas from an imaginary rack for the benefit of his class and his audience. The fragments of words inscribed into the surface are stream-of-consciousness responses to the difficulties of finding verbal explanations for things that should be obvious to the eye.

These are speculative ways of reading Higgs’s works but nothing he has made admits of a definitive interpretation. His paintings resist categorisation and defy reproduction because their dense, variegated surfaces are crucial to the way they are perceived and conceptualised. Each piece conceals as much as it reveals. They are not products of a conscious style or strategy, but a way of seeing the world – scattered energies shaped and coaxed into strange, new constellations.


Paul Higgs: Material Energy

Defiance Gallery, 26 August – 17 September, 2020