Wylie: ‘Poetic, ruminative’ works of art

Halifax-based artist Steve Higgins has been interested in the built urban environment for several years.

Halifax-based artist Steve Higgins has been interested in the built urban environment for several years. Although he began as a printmaker, Higgins has also been working in three dimensions for the last three decades and is especially focused on the area of intersection or nexus among sculpture, architecture and urban planning.

His work is poetic and ruminative, not prescriptive. But nevertheless it provides Kelowna audiences food for thought, given the recent and ongoing debates about the most appropriate direction for the development of the downtown.

Born in Spokane, Higgins came to live in Canada in 1974 from Detroit, Michigan. First he lived, worked and taught art in Winnipeg, then moved to Halifax in 2003, where he is an instructor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

This exhibition was organized collaboratively by the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, in Charlottetown, PEI, the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax, the McMaster Museum of Art at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the Kelowna Art Gallery. It is accompanied by a catalogue with reproductions of both past pieces and the works in the show, and texts by Ihor Holubizky, myself, Peter Dykhuis, Cliff Eyland and Jeanne Randolph.

It is a remarkable hallmark of Higgins’ practice the way he combines his various areas of interest (read passion) and art-making methods to such intriguing overall effect.

We see his printmaking background still in evidence in the four large etchings in the exhibition, each one purporting to depict the footprint of a building or planned area. So we have School, Crematorium, Mobile Home Park, and Cemetery, all reading on the surface like straightforward building plans. But they are more like imaginary, almost tongue-in-cheek, nods to the past. Things have started to get complicated.

There are also large drawings in the show, huge circular masses of fragments of construction trusswork, with intriguing titles: Asylum Infidorum and Templum Fallaciae. Higgins translates these from the Latin as Sanctuary of the Disloyal and Temple of Deceit.

The exhibition also has four vitrine-like structures built from medium-density fibreboard, with cut-away viewing windows on top, through which the visitors may look down onto miniature cities, all built in wood and painted black. Each of these is called Urban, and is based on the artist’s musings about different cities he has visited, for example, Paris and New Jersey.

The other big work in the show is the artist’s War and Peace: Rivers of White. This is a suite of ink-jet prints, and is not related to architecture, but has to do with typesetting and underwent a weird working process of flipping, conflating and building up that becomes nonsensical, yet has its own gravitas and visual fascination.

Higgins is an artist who observes, thinks, reconsiders, builds up, excavates, makes a mark, then erases it, but leaving the smear. Trusswork and timbering, the temporary support of building projects, become what lingers in his art, rather than the end product to which they were in service.

So much of contemporary architecture can get bogged down with problem solving. In Higgins’ world, it is more about poetry and dreams. The curator of this exhibition, Ihor Holubizky (who was curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery for a year in 2000) wrote of this work: “Art does not solve the problem—only the problems of art—but it can orient us in the right direction.”

Liz Wylie is the curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

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