On ViewTops Gallery
March 18 – July 1, 2022
Sand is a nearly impossible subject to portray. Infinitely divisible but invisible when separated, it does not absorb light but reflects it irregularly in every direction. We can hardly see sand so there is certainly no objective way to represent it. Trying to do so presents an ontological question about becoming and unbecoming, one that the artist Adam Higgins takes up in Lonesome, a show of five oil paintings of surf and sea on view at Memphis’s Tops Gallery. The paintings’ downward gazes extend to dead fish, birds, and mussels splayed across the beach, but Higgins’s true subject is the extended moment when the creatures merge with sandy ground, simultaneously appearing and disappearing.
Higgins, who lives in Los Angeles, traces his lineage as a painter to the French Divisionists, both on the level of craft and in terms of subject matter. Painters such as Paul Signac and Georges Seurat resisted dullness, instead building color out of fields of highly contrasted dots. If lenses brought shadows into Western art (as David Hockney has claimed), the project of Divisionist painters was to exceed photography by portraying a natural world without shadow. They did this through color theory rather than through Impressionist intuition. In that tradition, Higgins’s painting hidden surf perch with line (2020) is highly contrastive—a broad fish is set apart from the ground by shadow—but the shadow remains an entity in itself rather than a device to create foreground and background. Penumbras of color suggest a state change between light and dark; fish and beach are mirror expressions of the same thought. A scattered array of shells and twigs, rendered photo-realistically, reminds us that Higgins is a contemporary painter and provides a necessary note of ironic distance from the nineteenth century.
dead seagull with live walleye surf perch (2020) starts from a similar formal premise but is in closer conversation with casual photography. The painting of a bird lying prone next to a pale fish feels diaristic, a snapshot record of what you might find in your path on a walk along the coast. The sun is just past high noon, and the live fish and dead bird are laid plain. Higgins eulogizes the dead and dying animals he paints by looking at them directly and without sentimentality. The shadows are present, but not a hiding place.
If Higgins is a nature painter making images that are conduits to the sublime, he wants to remind us that this is not a Zen process. A bit of violence—of fractured subjectivity—hangs around the edges. A couplet of paintings, standard poodle and water and sand (both 2020), counterpose a splayed, open-mouthed white dog with a raucous surf. The whorled hair of the dog echoes the shape of the surf, abstracting the dog and lending an animal vulnerability to the water. A thin border of text surrounds both paintings: on one, “YOU CAN’T STOP THE WAVES AND YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO SURF,” and on the other, “EYE CANT STOP THE WAVES AND EYE DONT KNOW HOW TO SURF.” But as soon as that subjectivity is offered, it is withdrawn. Nearby, the most withholding work in the show, mussel rock (2020), offers a downward view of jutting rocks above blue-green surf. Higgins abstracts the mussels into dots and puts that abstraction front and center so that it almost appears to be an obstruction, like something strangely caught in the eye of the viewer.
Lonesome is arranged poetically rather than propositionally, as a series of jotted notes rather than a complete essay. It is an elliptical show of ocean paintings displayed in a tiny subterranean gallery in a landlocked state. It succeeds as an almost-hidden exhibition of works that suggest, in an understated way, that we can’t hide anything.