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.

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