Cars in the landscape
"Cars are everywhere, and nowhere. As a person who paints the built environment, cars have usually eluded me, because while they are built, they are not fixed. Earlier on in my work I cropped them out of my paintings. I thought that nothing says less about a place than the cars on the roads that go through that place- “through” being the operative word here. But in my heart I knew this wasn’t true. As a child in the 1980s my family would make visits to Cleveland and my sister and I had a name for the cars we saw in Cleveland, which became our word for a certain type of car- “Cleveland cars”. These were old American models that were kept alive by some mechanical wizardry that could only have been honed by the generations of industrial laborers. The bodies were rusted out and they blew smoke but they were on the road. To this day Ohio is a state that does not require an annual inspection, except strangely only in Cleveland.
Then I bought a car and I became sympathetic to cars. Driving became a new way of seeing the landscape. Can one be a flâneur in a car or around cars? The American pastime of The Sunday Drive says so. But as oil becomes scarce, most people go out with a purpose, and that is not flânerie at all (no matter how contaminated flânerie has become). How are we to discover the places where we live if we don’t explore?
Where cars are included in the tradition of realist urban landscape painting they are an afterthought, dashed off with a few quick marks. But after some attention they appear quite attractive to the painter of surfaces and details. They bear congruities to my other obsessions in the urban environment, namely surface reflections. Car designs go though cycles. Where once cars were angular and matte, recent car designs form the car’s angles into seamless gentle curves and glassy colored surfaces, flecked with tiny metallic particles. This causes reflections to tint and bend, morphing psychedelically, but most of all to become heightened.
In the northeastern U.S. city, cars congregate on the edge, in the suburban area (“fringe” is the word that has entered the lexicon, since we are speaking now of marginal groups). Bright colorful industrial signage serves a purpose: to mark the vast open spaces. Car dealerships employ the banners to gather glances from passing drivers. These form a shimmering and wanly smiling catenary high above the lot. These found sculptural installations are a visual delight on an otherwise flat gray plain. The banners’ uniformity and repetition mimic the cars, themselves the impetus, and result, of the assembly line. But I want to cast these cars in the light of the personal, the marked upon, the beloved and specific. Not by representing figures, but thinking of how when I return to my car and see it down the block where I parked, it is like meeting a good friend. I know all of its features.
In the rush to localize and downsize, there is something sad about thinking of the car (as we know it) becoming the dinosaur of the 20th century. The newness of a car is only new for a short time. Its newness is ephemeral- like the old saying “a car loses half its value as soon as you drive it off the lot”. There is a portent of death in the dark night that hangs over the brand new Hyundai Velosters in the South Philly lot. It will take a return of American wizardry to rescue them from the junk heap of history."
statement for 'environs' 2009 exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery:
“The title 'environs' alludes to my ongoing exploration of the suburbs of New York and other major cities. While the paintings do not focus on the heroic side of New York best understood by tourists, they match these subjects (i.e. the Brooklyn Bridge, Lower Manhattan, etc.) in visual drama. What I choose to focus on are things seen on the periphery. I am interested in the idea of the 'center and margins' of the physical layout of the city. Most of the country has developed into endless suburbs but in New York there is still the idea of a 'center'- namely, Manhattan. My work could be considered an archive of the margins, as a place of dynamic, shifting hybridism and change. I am interested in a kind of poetic awareness of the shapes and textures of the outer boroughs.
Part of my choices of subjects are motivated by the idea of using paint to describe paint-like objects. I am particularly attracted to banners because they are really nothing more than flat pieces of color, and cakes are architectural and painterly at the same time. And while there is a range of subjects the common thread running through them is that they all tend to be ephemeral objects, from buildings in a state of destruction or entropic decay, to cheap plastic thrills, reflections, rainbows, graffiti, and food. Even a disposable structure like Shea Stadium, quickly built for the 1964 World's Fair and just as quickly torn apart, takes up a more permanent place in the memories of those who visited there and cherished its shabbiness and underdog status.”
Daina Higgins, 2009