Matthew Higgs & Imprint 93


Art Monthly, Issue 189, Sep 1995

500 years after Renaissance scholars proclaimed painting to be a window on the world, Matthew Higgs is still working on that theme. But then Higgs works along several different themes and, besides, his paintings take about 500 years to dry: who else would make paintings where the medium is Vandalene® on unprimed canvas (1993), Vandalene® being an anti-climb paint that has the consistency of Pedigree Chum® and does in fact take 500 years to dry? (Well, actually it only takes eight years to dry, but it feels like 500.) He also has a tendency to begin projects which are, initially at least, intended to continue annually, growing in size and eventually getting sufficiently out of control to become separate entities with their own dynamics and momentum: like his annual 'Imprint 93' group shows and the once-only 'Weekenders' shows. But we're getting somewhat ahead of ourselves here.

Born in West Yorkshire in 1964, Higgs went on to study Fine Art at Newcastle. Completing the BA course in 1987, Higgs left for London in January 1988, where he obtained full-time employment in an advertising company. This shaped his artistic development, and not only with the time constraints it placed upon him, as a new kind of time came in abundance with the job: dead time, three hours a day of it. This put him in the enviable position of being able to read, and read. And read. But those three hours were spread out in not-so-handy five minute segments, thus no weighty works could be given the prolonged concentration they demanded. Pulp fiction was the only answer - 1950s crime novels were to become Higgs' daily bread. After about 100 of these, Higgs realised that they contained surprisingly numerous references to art, and so set about rereading the whole lot, noting down each art reference. These formed the basis of a series consisting of 23 pages with all but the art references scribbled through (1991-92). For example, only these words are discernible on Untitled (Hard Boiled) no.1: ' ... a couple of vigorously coloured daubs on the walls that looked lousy enough to have cost money ... '; no.13: 'Composed of blobs and splashes of raw colour, it was one of those paintings which are either very advanced or very backward ... '; no. 23: 'He isn't a confidence man. He's a good painter.' The comments tend to be antagonistic towards art, but also betray a fairly sophisticated knowledge of art. It is obvious that the authors are writing down for their audience, hence we see that people are presented with antagonistic opinions simply because they are already expected to hold them. An example of the way in which what we already believe in is continually backed up - it's called either retaining the orthodoxy or giving the people what they want.

A further creative bonus to be found at the office was the regular arrival of every Yellow Pages telephone directory from around the country. Higgs swooped upon these, and the 2 to 300 local newspapers that were collated weekly by the agency, as a means of building up a collection of raw materials, sifting the morass of public domain information for highly specific, and yet pointless, items (of which there are plenty). For example: he kept all of the adverts for glaziers that featured broken windows; the stories about lovers' tiffs that reached the courtroom; the stories about suicides; every crime story that began with the words 'A man ... '; every crime story that began with the words 'A woman ... '; all the stories that mentioned art. He kept a lot of stories, all with the mundanely parochial stance that you find in local papers. He was performing an arbitrary research of the everyday, carried out with the specificity of a scientist, but with none of the goals: like a pure research scientist but without the four-door Saab.

These clippings began to appear in his artworks, and whenever some work was required for a show, he would make a new wall drawing of a glaziers advert, or exhibit a new fraction of novel, for example The Reluctant Lover, 1993, in which he tried to tell a 200-page story with just fragments of 14 pages. He developed these schematic ways of working in series as a solution to his inability to give each single artwork the usual gestation period in the studio. Plus, the bonus was that very special discoveries could be exhibited whenever they cropped up, such as that which made up part of his contribution to the 'Making People Disappear' show: the back cover blurb of a Mills & Boon novel in which the hero's name was Richard Deacon ('It had been so easy to communicate with Richard Deacon via letters that Liz had allowed her doubts to be swept away and agreed to meet him ... ' it began).

But a more important development also took place at this exhibition, and that was Higgs' decision to work with the other artists by inviting them each to contribute to a short-run publication that he would make to accompany the exhibits. This was to be his first publication, and inspiration for his own press - Imprint 93 - which he launched at the end of 1993. Imprint 93 is a monthly opportunity for Higgs to work with other artists: he acts as artistic facilitator - inviting the artists, providing majority funding for the projects, physically making most of the works, but generally giving the artists free rein and in no sense claiming the works to be his own. It is telling that Imprint 93 was born in a climate when the warehouse show phenomenon was, shall we say, past its prime. These shows, like 'Imprint 93', were also a response to the question 'does the viewing of art necessarily have to take place within a white gallery?'. Of course it doesn't but, unlike 1960s mail-art, the warehouse shows did not attempt to deny the gallery system, and as such did not claim subversion of it; they were attempts by artists to get their work seen by galleries, and pronto. Imprint 93 shares this lack of subversive pretensions, but the overriding motivation is less that of self-promotion, and more that of wanting to help make other people's artworks visible - hitting the target audience with all the speedy precision of a postman. You do what you can within the constraints of your lifestyle. Of course, it helps to work in an office where you can secretly run off 40,000 photocopies over two years.

Back when Higgs began working full-time, he gave up his tiny studio. But he produced little work in there after realising that there was sufficient space to ride his bicycle round in a tight little figure-of-eight. This imagined scene invariably brings to my mind the sad demented polar bears that you get swimming repetitively round and round their enclosures in zoos - places where animals are meant to behave like animals, but often don't. Which perhaps suggests that Higgs thought of his studio in much the same way: a place where he had to be-an-artist-and-do-artistic-things, a specified enclosure. Such a rarefied area seems anathema to Higgs' way of working which takes place, not in isolation, but in amongst all the rubbish that we have to get through in daily life which is called 'getting by'. His is an art of everyday life: making dramas out of broken windows and getting caught in the photocopy room at work. It tries everything, adapting itself to every situation: Imprint 93 produces mainly books but has also produced, amongst other things, squashed chocolate Valentine cards and crunched up balls of paper. Very contemporary, very Renaissance.

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