Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An Interview with Brooklyn-based Artist Daina Higgins

 Daina Higgins

Missed Connection (Corona) 2009
oil on panel
30x45 inches

Daina Higgins is a Brooklyn-based painter who is known for her urban landscapes. Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Higgins is "continually drawn to schemes that reflect urban loneliness and post-industrial decay." The art critic Roberta Smith wrote that her "process creates a poetic awareness of the passage of light, moving through the world, bouncing off things and making visual experience fleetingly possible." Daina was a 2009 MFA graduate from Queens College, The City University of New York, Queens, New York. She will also be exhibiting at CUE as one of the Joan Mitchell Foundation: 2009 MFA Grant Recipients. Daina does this interview with me via Facebook.

Mario Vasquez    May 5 at 1:39pm
Hi Daina, Thanks for allowing this interview with me.
Tell me how you started as an artist. Was it something you always wanted to do? You grew up in Ohio, so was there anything there that inspired you?

Daina Higgins    May 6 at 7:52am

All kids like to draw but I did more than most of them. I was drawing all the time or making stuff and generally being creative. I didn't like sports or athletics of any kind but I was shy and quiet and wanted to be in the corner creating something. Mom truly inspired me by bringing home bric-a-brac from garage sales and generally letting me do my own thing. When I was 10 she enrolled me in a Saturday morning class at the Columbus College of Art and Design. I clearly remember the first day- it's one of those rare memories that stick out in your conscience forever- because I didn't want to go. Pee-Wee's Playhouse was on and it was my favorite show. My dad was also a Pee-Wee fan. We would watch it together. Anyway, I pouted all the way to the school, and by the end of the morning I was in love with art school. I wanted to be an artist. And when I make up my mind, I am very persistent.

Daina Higgins    May 6 at 7:57am
I suppose I should mention what I drew that day- it was a drawing of huskies pulling a sled through the snow.

Mario Vasquez    May 6 at 10:03am

So from the time at age 10 when you were attending the Saturday class at the Columbus College of Art you were drawing, and then I assume you were painting as well, did you ever experiment with any type or style of art during this time?

Daina Higgins    May 6 at 12:14pm

We did all sorts of things at the College. It depended on the teacher, sometimes they were grad students. We had these twins who were life drawing teachers and they made us draw crumpled paper bags over and over again, which I thought was boring. There was another teacher who was really cool, we did book making and then a project where we cut the ends off garbage bags, taped them together in a big tube going all through the room and down the hallway. All this time the anticipation is building, like what's it going to turn out to be? And he brought out a big fan and turned it on and placed one end of the tube over it, and it became a kind of inflatable sculpture.

During this time, like 5th to 7th grade, when I was making stuff at home it was usually dollhouses and miniatures, that was my favorite. I had a whole dollhouse city made from cardboard boxes that I would modify, add floors, windows, furniture. Then I had Sculpey, that clay you bake, and I had a small business making miniature creche scenes and selling them. All my figurines were under one inch, with lots of detail. The local news did a feature on me and my figurines.

At this time I didn't know about styles of art, I didn't think about it that much. I was more involved in mediums.

Princess c. 1990
~1 inch

Mario Vasquez    May 6 at 1:48pm
That sounds great. So your education really nurtured your creativity. I want to now talk about your painting, because I really liked your work when you showed here at the University of La Verne, here in Southern California. How do you think your work fits, or relates to the notion of realism?

Daina Higgins    May 12 at 7:13am

Realism has always interested me greatly. I think part of it comes from making a miniature facsimile of everything, in the world of dollhouses. I remember my dad taking me to his work and in the lobby there was an architectural model of the office building in a vitrine. I was absolutely fascinated by it. Over the years I have gotten a vague feeling of wanting to own something that I see. Not an object per se, but a whole scene. It could stem from my days of miniature mimicry- creating ownership or control somehow. I know that sounds like so uncultivated but it's true. It's about mastery. Owning the fleeting visual experiences that I have in my day through control over the paint medium. Visually I fall in love like a thousand times a day. The real world has everything for me, I don't even need to make anything up. Abstract artists have these feelings too, they just express it differently.

Cathedral 2003
spray paint on panel
12x6 inches

Mario Vasquez    May 14 at 9:46am
Your work is mostly about the urban environment, what is it about the city that attracts you? Do use photography to assist you in your painting?

Daina Higgins    May 15 at 9:05am
I grew up in a suburb. Not like a cookie-cutter development with cul-de-sacs, but an old neighborhood just outside of the OSU campus area where everything is very manicured and people are very house-proud. Anyway, initially I was attracted to the visual excitement of the city landscape, coming from this purely residential area. I like to wander, and observe. The suburbs are pockets of planned development. I like the element of chance in the way a city looks. Due to the sheer density and flow of people, it's almost impossible to have a grand vision and make it a reality in a city like New York. It's always changing. One is not better than the other, they're just different. But me, I suppose I'm a bit of a decadent.

Of course, graffiti had a lot to do with why I decided to move to the city at 18. I always had a camera and I learned photography from documenting my work in the landscape. When I decided to become a studio artist who had 50% training from graffiti and 50% training the formal way, I meditated on what that would look like. There was a lot of cheesy stuff in galleries like graffiti just plopped on a canvas, like that's supposed to have any dialogue with anyone. I looked through my photos and realized that not only was I photographing graffiti, but the contexts that graffiti exists in and that it was probably very meaningful that whole generations of artists come of age in abandoned buildings left over from the industrial age. I "shifted focus". My work is always described as urban, but it's not skyscraper midtown urban, it's the perimeter of brokenness ringing the center. I don't give a shit about the center. It's the margins where all the interesting stuff happens.

So yeah, I do use photography to assist me. I suppose it's because painting is natural to me and I'm less of a technophile so I would make a horrible professional photographer. People put this rigid line of division between the two but that's so 20th century. They've had a dialogue for 170 years.

Departing Pittsburgh  2004
spray paint on panel
12x6 inches

Mario Vasquez    May 15 at 10:45am
A few years ago you were here in Southern California. You were in a show with Liat Yossifer, another amazing artist. Did you like Los Angeles? What were your impressions about LA verses New York? Did you find differences in the brokenness that you refer to?

Daina Higgins    May 17 at 8:37am

That was last year- 2009. I know, time goes fast.
The differences in the kind of decay are vast. For one thing, southern California has such a range and abundance of natural vegetation that it's hard to look at it with plain eyes and know you might be in the 'hood. Everything was so sun-soaked and dramatic and colorful that I had a hard time knowing if I was wandering into territory I shouldn't. I did go to Compton, just to see it, because I grew up with gangsta rap and Boyz n the Hood and all that and it was always on my radar. It didn't look that bad to me. I mean, when you look at the details, you see the boarded up windows or whatever but at first glance everything just looked "cute" to me. There is a bucolic sensibility to everything- even walking along the LA river at night was kind of scenic in a traditional way. And I'm sure that underneath all that is lots and lots of misery, like Hollywood itself, but the sunshine cancels some of it out.

The darkness of New York can be too much at times, and everyone talks about the difficult winters here. But I'm much more suited to it than LA. To me the greatest contrast was the way people talk. To generalize, New Yorkers are a very sarcastic bunch. They complain and they air their grievances. I was like that as a child, so I fit in very comfortably here. My friend in LA warned me before I came- she said don't curse casually or be cynical, people won't understand. And she was right. I could never live in a place like that.

Mario Vasquez    May 17 at 11:39am

It's interesting to hear the description of LA from someone who is from outside of the city. There was an exhibition on LA art about 10 years ago called "Sunshine/Noir" that explored the kind of contrasts that you describe. The ghettos don't look like "ghettos." There is a facade that is everywhere. It hides the truth. If you like to explore this kind juxtaposition I recommend two works of fiction, "Ask the Dust" by John Fante and "Less than Zero" by Bret Easton Ellis. When I lived in New York City, the people were up-front with their feelings. It was a nice change from LA. There was no hiding. It was gritty, but you know where you stood. I remember getting on the wrong train in New York and ending up in what looked like a war-zone. You know what part of the city you were in. Here in LA, it's not that easy. I really do hope you come back to LA. Would you go back to LA? And going back to your work, when you're looking for subjects to paint, is it spontaneous or do you really look for "that moment?"

 Metro Management 2005
spray paint on panel
6x12 inches

Daina Higgins    May 18 at 8:28am

Certain people (you know who you are) have been urging me to move to California, because they know I'm sick of New York. To visit again would be wonderful. There is so much to love. But it annoys me that artists feel like they all have to be in one of two cities that are the only choices. Where is the imagination in that? New York is a silly place because the quality of life is so poor unless your rich. That may be okay for a 20 year old, but I'm getting old and tired of it. The depressed economy is not helping push rents down enough to consider staying here. That's all I'm going to say about that.

And yes, going back to my work. From 2003-2007 I was working on the spray-paint paintings made with stencils. That series all began with the medium (spray paint) and my desire to zero in on it's beauty by bringing down the scale dramatically, so you see the particles. At the same time I was making a correlation between the dust-like quality of the paint and the dirty city. So my subject came later but I had the epiphany when looking at my graffiti photos and I saw the walls, the bridges, smokestacks, rooftops...just these places people didn't go to but were everywhere. So that was a good subject for a while, rendered in black and white spray.

During this time (2005) my father died, young, it was very tragic. I was going through a lot of mental and emotional anguish and continuing to focus on these subjects (urban decay) got to be too much. I also became wary of the fetish for urban decay among landscape painters in the city and didn't want my work to just be reportage. In 2006 I discovered Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn and became really fascinated by it. Basically I was looking for some new challenges. Oil paint had always been something I wanted to use but it is so loaded with history- how could I make it mine? My work got really colorful and brash, even- my subjects became the storefront windows and signage along the avenue, as signs of life- but still involving no figures.

When I am walking with my camera, I get into a kind of visual thinking. Basically, I try to just see and not think. It's like a trance. Sometimes I seek out a specific object- I did a painting of ailanthus trees, those weeds that grow up out of concrete. Or cakes. I like to paint cakes because icing and oil paint are similar, and the Quinceanera cakes are amazing. Most of the time I just look and shoot and take it back to the studio and whatever strikes me is what I will paint.

 Fulton Mall 2008
oil on panel

Mario Vasquez    May 18 at 4:31pm
In regards to urging you to move to California, my response is "guilty, as charged." But I do agree with you that there is a lack of imagination when it comes to artists being (in) one of two cities (LA or NYC). I have found cities like Seattle, Houston, or even Kansas City have a viable art scene. However, it is in cities like Los Angeles and New York City that the debates on art are being formulated. So, although it may seem unimaginative, it is understandable. My last question is what are your plans in the near future? Will you be showing anywhere soon?

Daina Higgins    May 19 at 10:26am

I would rather not discuss my plans, mostly because I don't want to bore anybody. I'm getting organized; or rather, re-organized from the ground up. I'm doing what people are the most avoidant about in America today: working on my infrastructure. My friends can't relate and they all think I'm crazy. But hopefully when I'm 65 I will be comfortable.

My next show is going to be June 10, at the Cue Art Foundation in Chelsea. The show is for all the 2009 Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant recipients. I'm showing 2 paintings and people should check it out because I've been to these and Cue always puts on a great show. The show is up til July 31.

Mario Vasquez    May 19 at 10:30am

Thank you, Daina and good luck.


Shea Goodbye 2009
oil on panel
20x20 inches

Forest 2008
oil on panel
60x30 inches

 Portal 2004
spray paint on panel
6x12 inches

All images are courtesy of the artist.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Email Interview with Artist Maya Lujan

From: Mario Vasquez
To: Maya Lujan
Date: Wednesday, March 17, 2010, 9:36 PM
Let's start with some background about you. Tell me about where you started and what attracted you to being an artist.

From: Maya Lujan
To: Mario Vasquez
Date: Thu, 18 Mar 2010 11:46:14 -0700
Well, the term "attracted to be an artist" implies that I made a specific decision at some point to be an artist. Rather, once it became fully apparent to me, I consciously implemented steps and worked hard to make it a reality. I considered doing other things, such as nursing or even acting, but there was just always more of a concentration on doing what I needed to do and learning everything I possibly could about art and art-making. I also realized very early on that I despised being objectified or regarded for reasons other than my ideas and intellect. I tend to spend a lot of focused time alone, either working with my hands or working through ideas via research, reading and writing. So it makes sense this way, and I am able to make sense. -M

From: Mario Vasquez
To: Maya Lujan
On Mar 18, 2010, at 11:58 AM,
Then would you say that art was a vehicle to do what you love and as a result being an artist was incidental?

From: Maya Lujan
To: Mario Vasquez
21 Mar 2010 11:08:10 -0700
I think it's more of the fact that engaging in an art practice provides me with a vehicle to keep learning about things I already know about and things I want to learn more about.  Also, there is always a direct focus regarding my work and ideas, quite different from incidental.  -M

From: Mario Vasquez
To: Maya Lujan
Date: Sunday, March 21, 2010, 9:56 PM
Thank you. Let's now talk about your work and the ideas behind your work. In your MFA show, in particular both the art work and the artist's book, and even in your most recent work at the Pacific Design Center, the art work centered around the theme and ideas of space exploration. Were you always interested in space? and science fiction? Did you ever want to be an astronaut?

From: Maya Lujan
To: Mario Vasquez
Date: Monday, March 22, 2010, 10:10 PM
Of course I want to be an astronaut! Who doesn't?
I think astronauts and science fiction are fun and endlessly fascinating. Although the shuttle program for the US is ending there is still the possibility that space travel may soon be in our common reality and consciousness again. But these subjects are really another discussion regarding psychology and fitness and even current states of economies and lack of progress.

I am a space explorer. That may include resolving the contained space in a 3.4'x 5' wooden substrate, the delineation of an 18' high angled ceiling, the negative space in between large text or the mental space that it takes in (mind-image) abstraction translation.

So the spatiality may be ontological, like a question as to how the space "out there" extends beyond and is different from the space within. It may be more scientifically based, for example right now, my questions are concerned more with the space located inside a mass or object and even the gaps or intervals in-between designated areas of space (these are integral to concepts of vast space).

The concept of space exploration allows for an endless scope of queries beyond what I find to be tiresome and reductive contemporary discourses.


From:     Mario Vasquez
To:       maya lujan
Date:     Tuesday, March 23, 2010, 8:52 PM
I wanted to be an astronaut also. In fact I was hoping that one day I would be the captain of the Enterprise. So space is not just a term that relates to the "space" outside of Earth, i.e. the solar system, stars, planets, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc... It is about the "space" that is explored in the areas that make up the physical. The space in between? Is there a mystical or metaphysical aspect in your work?

From:      maya lujan
To:     Mario Vasquez
Date:     Sunday, March 28, 2010 9:59 PM
No not really.

Although I do consider, conservatively, the metaphysical capabilities of an art object. Meaning; energy, real energy, concerned with theoretical explanations of being. This energy is not just regarding evidence of  labor invested in the work but a potential or shamanistic energy latent in the object. This would be based on the power of certain symbols, especially those used over and over again throughout time.

Regarding the energy or space in between, here is something I wrote (for personal use) for some work I have up at Glendale Community College called Spatial Intervals.

"In Spatial Intervals, the structural system reveals that interval space is integrally woven within all objects. In the sculpture, the fusion of the axial planes verify the particular theory that ultimately, there is no empty space or space without a field, as all open fields are "filled". In this field of force, atoms race through space in parallel lines, assuring their discreteness and possibility of motion. There is also visual noetic that makes reference to weight as a force that measures how strongly gravity pulls on matter."

I am interested in the facts. Facts merge into the metaphysical and are often based on conjecture.

From: Mario Vasquez
To: Maya Lujan
Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2010, 8:56 PM
Let's now talk about what happened a few years ago at the Wight Biennial at UCLA. First, describe the work that created the controversy.


From:      Maya Lujan
Sent:     Mon 4/05/10 4:20 PM
To:     Mario Vasquez
These are what the work was based on:

1. Spatial considerations

2. Cryptic qualities (in that there is always the potential towards open possibility within a discussion of exhaustion and specific visual cues towards concepts that deal with this subject).

3. The bed is always the foundation of creative thinking. It is the source, the point of origination, and where we ultimately expire.

4. Windows looking out into a vast expanse and notions of the traditional gaze within painting.

5. Considerations of the insurgent power dynamics that are present within architecture.

6. Sex and sculpture/ architecture in that the mathematical equations used to make models and the logic used for architecture are sexy.

We then went to the gallery and figured out where the installation would be located. There was a really great black line on the wall (a permanent vent/ you can see it in the photo) that was the beginning of the construction of ideas around the proposal. We also submitted a statement saying this regarding what we were thinking of making (At this point we were still having fun);

We will construct a geometric white form that starts to connect with a black shell of an organic shape, that one walks around to view. We mutually utilize the concept of noir, and will show black velvet paintings. (This is the beginning of the mandala). The paintings will serve to navigate the sculpture. We want the work to be experiential and the cumulative experience, we foresee, will be centrifugal with the intention of the viewer being sucked into a tactile, sensual mode of perception. Last, there will also be a space shuttle bunk bed specifying utilitarian Modernist underpinnings. What both our works have in common are taking on the inherent polemics and gender- sexual particulars of whatever space we work in. We always need a lot of room to work in as we frequently address ideas of scale. We want to really use and consider the space of installation.

Of course, the work really turned out to be something else. Kristen became overwhelmed by the project and decided to opt for exotic travel and self-improvement, so I finished producing the remainder of the exhibition myself.

At this point I had become very focused and serious about the project and it changed a lot.

One thing about this whole situation is that the work never got a fair level of critical consideration due to the controversy that overshadowed it. Also, I am willing to talk about it now and feel like I have moved on, learned and evolved, but there are still things I would like to see happen as a result. Perhaps if I were a different type of person, my career could of been severley damaged by fear and negligence. -M

From:     Mario Vasquez
Sent:     Mon 4/05/10 8:09 PM
To:     Maya Lujan
Catherine Wagley in her blog posting on art21 Blog (http://blog.art21.org/2008/12/23/crying-wolf/) entitled "Crying Wolf" referred to the controversy as a " fairly small one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not indicative of what often happens when artwork becomes the focus of press-fueled debate." She went on to state that "(the) story could certainly be (and has been, for a handful of bloggers and art writers) the basis for some age-old conversations about censorship, the power of symbols, the artist’s freedom of expression, the license of curators, etc. But what if these are just default issues that become easy to talk about whenever art “controversies” arise? Swastikas are  loaded symbols and censorship certainly has a sordid history, but what happened in a small, student-curated exhibition full of emerging artists is likely a little more complicated." She concludes her posting by stating that, "Art, especially thoughtful art, should be difficult. It should take time. It should be experienced, considered and reconsidered, before it’s really done its job. The problem with the over-simplification that usually accompanies art world controversies is that the art doesn’t get its due."

What is your response?

From:      Maya Lujan
To:     Mario Vasquez
Well, I completely agree.
I still think that the meaning of the work has yet to be discovered and become apparent.
Perhaps it has set a new template as far as other works using the same symbology.
I know for a fact than an artist named Greta Svalberg had a piece up last year for the  UCLA MFA show with swastika's on pillows in the same gallery. Nobody found it offensive and it certainly wasn't censored. I am really glad for that, as it indicates that there may have been some manner of evolution and acknowledgment of history. It indicates a  better change of the politics of the UCLA Broad Gallery.

There are still unresolved issues, as far as I'm concerned.

From:      Mario Vasquez
To:     Maya Lujan
There has been a few years since the controversy erupted, what are your thoughts about it since?

From:      Maya Lujan
Sent:     Sun 4/11/10 10:01 AM
To:     Mario Vasquez
I want it to be understood that I legal action could of been a facile in this case. My VARA rights were blatantly trespassed upon and I had several legal organizations encourage me to take action.
This was not the direction I chose, for several reasons. For one, I am neither vindictive nor crazy in the sense that I didn't want to ex-communicate myself from certain art communities (after going to school for eight years).
Ultimately, I didn't want to cause any harm to the students in the program. In other words, take from the already tight funding of the program. I was still a student myself, so I acutely understood this.

Also, Russell Ferguson has yet to properly take any real responsibility and issue a real, visible apology. I wonder if the levity of this situation has even dawned on him.

One thing Christopher Knight mentioned in his article, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2008/10/ucla-kippenberg.html was a quote in Mein Kampf, in which Hitler described the Nazis' flag: "In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic."

So in Ferguson's attempt to pacify/ shield and not offend he actually ended up re-affirming the definition provided by Hitler! He also inadvertently provided a window into he power dynamics of that particular faction of the LA art world and legitimized the conservative politics of it through the act of censorship.

From: Mario Vasquez
To: Maya Lujan
Date: Thursday, April 15, 2010, 10:17 PM
So final question, what are you working on now? Are you going to be showing anywhere soon?

From:      Maya Lujan
Sent:     Mon 4/19/10 2:01 PM
To:     Mario Vasquez
Right now I am working on curatorial projects at Jancar Gallery, particularly those in the summer and I have a solo exhibition coming up in the fall.

The next logical phase of my work would be based on my research from previous shows starting from Spatial Extensions then Intervals. Extensions was concerned with the nature of being as represented by groups of objects and one's relationship to them and movement around them. Intervals dealt with a spatial definition contained within the actual object itself as defined by the objects and space around the singular sculpture.

So the new work seems to consider the gaps of space both within the material and external points of connection.

The Gap (tentatively titled) will be based in nuance and deep expansion with a porous description of extension, (permeated by all bodies) and intervals (integral in any structure or number set) or the sum off all gaps.

But this could all change and end up being something totally different - what I can be sure of is that the work will offer a very serious reverence to painting and is a way for me to really test the limits of paint as a material.

Thank you so much.






List of Works. 
1. White Magic and Xanadu, 2008, as part of The Wight Biennial, Eli and Edith Broad Gallery, UCLA
Black velvet painting on the wall in the shape of a mandala, sprayfoam, carved Polyurethane Foam and Resin, paint, wood, feather bedding, cotton, Bismuth, Optical Calcite, Selenite, and sounds derived from the Aurora Borealis.

2. (detail) Spatial Extensions, 2010, 3.4' x 5' (6 Total).
Materials; Foamcore, tapes, various paints, wrapping paper, silver and copper leaves, chromolux, gift bags, stickers, gravity, and remnant wood pieces from a Neanderthal diorama.

3. Intervals, 2010, approximately 4'X5'
Black line on wall aproximately 15'X1", red oak wood, semi-transparent glass, water glass, paint.

4. (detail) Intervals, 2010, approximately 4'X5'
Black line on wall aproximately 15'X1", red oak wood, semi-transparent glass, water glass, paint.

5. & 6. Spatial Extensions, 2010, 3.4' x 5' (6 Total).
Materials; Foamcore, tapes, various paints, wrapping paper, silver and copper leaves, chromolux, gift bags, stickers, gravity, and remnant wood pieces from a Neanderthal diorama.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Changing the World – Group Show at Arndt Berlin

Just in time for the Gallery Weekend Berlin 2010, gallerist Matthias Arndt opened his new premises on Potsdamer Strasse, close to Potsdamer Platz and the New National Gallery.
The opening exhibition features new works by the core gallery artists as well as invited guests: Erik Bulatov, Sophie Calle, William Cordova, Wim Delvoye, Anton Henning, Thomas Hirschhorn, Ilya und Emilia Kabakov, Jitish Kallat, Jon Kessler, Karsten Konrad, Julije Knifer, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Josephine Meckseper, Vik Muniz, Muntean Rosenblum, Julian Rosefeldt, Charles Sandison, Dennis Scholl, Nedko Solakov, Hiroshi Sugito, Ena Swansea, Mathilde Ter Heijne, Keith Tyson, Ralf Ziervogel…
The gallery is located on the second floor of the “Wintergarten Varieté”. The new spaces will span almost 400 square meters and include a ballroom that dates from the 19th century with an original wooden coffered ceiling of 5 meter height, serving as main exhibition space. The galley has been designed by Berlin based Canadian Architect David Saik. Saik’s recent completed work includes studios for the artists Jeff Wall and Steven Shearer.
Changing the World – Group Show at Arndt Berlin, Opening, April 29, 2010.

Frieze Los Angeles 2024 (Review)

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