a-n The Artists Information Company
Image: Paul Blakemore
27 July 2021
Colin Higginson: In The Manner In Which It Appears
Venue: Stroud Valleys Artspace
Location: South West England
Article: Colin Glen
Colin Higginson – In The Manner In Which It Appears
SVA 16th May – 5th June 2021
Caught in the moment by Colin Higginson’s central wall-based work of his show, ‘In The Manner In Which It Appears’ at the gallery space of artist-led organisation SVA, my gaze was held by the same hypnotic stillness as when holding a nostalgic personal photograph. The work barely rose off the wall – a subtle yet telling development from its incarnation in his solo exhibition, ‘There Will Always be Rocks on the Road’, held at Spike Island’s Test Space in 2018, where the individual elements had been borne on gradually stepped shelves in a strata pattern reminiscent of artefacts in a natural history display. The mesmeric manifestations of linear branching shapes appeared to originate from the sap-green-glazed ceramic dishes at the bottom – charity shop finds emulating tree branches – curiosity objects whose function as sentimental relics is the reception and holding of memory. Above, real twigs were set in sequence like glyphs or ancient letter forms and on the next step up, corresponding shimmering slate-blue patterns of angles in square timber swayed back and forth – their schematic branching clock-hand lines evocative of hieroglyphic simplifications of natural phenomena – bifurcations redolent in the history of the written word as revealed in archaeological fragments like Linear B or Runic symbols. The highest tier of these signs glowed darkly like ocean water depth delineating obtuse, acute and right-angle sections. After an extended period of rumination, I discovered that all these objects were hand-made recreations by the artist that followed no determining system of sequence as I had previously assumed. The pattern of movement eluded conscious capture but induced a resting experience as that of a passing stream, accompanied by a dawning awareness of the viewing self as a still centre, neatly symbolic in the right angle’s central position at the apex of the assemblage.
The dialogue between the original branch forms and their schematic counterparts was further elucidated on the adjacent wall. Branches cast exquisitely in a resin suspension of graphite, the blue grey of pencil that invokes the shadowy iridescence of thought, were not, however, directly transposed into their equivalent forked forms. This caused my gaze to cast about randomly in reverberating ellipses made aware of how sensitive our vision is to implied connections. I realised that the evolving forms constituted a kind of playful puzzle – like the childhood game, Snakes and Ladders, where we continuously return to a different starting point – rather than an endgame race to solve a mysterious enigma. Our mind is set in motion on trajectories, modelling a space of awareness with overlapping criss-crossing lines like those the anthropologist Tim Ingold explores in the development of letter forms in his book ‘Lines’ from 2007, in which he argues that writing continues to be a form of drawing, part of ongoing practice. The notion that the mind at play is congruent with the hand at making in the performative act of recreating signs, eludes abstract adherence to a transparent semiotic system. Instead, we yield to the seductive trance-like sensation of being pleasantly caught in a web of lines made of thought that heralds entry into a reflective state of being and the concurrent sense of being embodied in space. A sense of elevation created by the rotation of forked forms, steps lifting up as when contemplating an ancient tree and its charismatic aura, precipitated my eye across the wall to a floating pair of Higginson’s graphite-cast branches – whose gnarled bark bore celestial blue copper sulphate accretions that the artist had grown on them himself in child-like absorbed fascination.
However, it was as I approached the stand of circular plinths placed slightly off-centre in the gallery that I became fully aware of physical space. The display was a museological array of Higginson’s crystal discs and ceramic works accompanied by a curiously child-like mountaineering figure acting as a puncturing device like the role Roland Barthes’ accorded to the ‘punctum’, the detail in a photograph that pricks the interest of the viewer. The quizzical focus of the figure acted here as an associative catalyst for the imagination – transforming the crustaceous copper sulphate crystals into apparitions of mountains – anthropomorphising the space to remind us of our bodily presence while eluding the analytic abstraction of the clinically conceptual. It was only then it dawned on me that it had been with hesitant step that I had entered the SVA gallery space, more comfortable seeing the complete whole safe from the fishbowl view on the street outside, able to circle the work without the commitment of physical presence. Now with one foot in the internally reflective state of lockdown and one foot in the now surreal-seeming public space, I ventured to traverse the worlds of the imagination and the physical – sensing an elliptic flow of movement around the space created by the balance of gaps between collections of works, like the weighted bends in a languid river. Such fluidity of space allowed the visitor to ‘In The Manner In Which It Appears’ the opportunity to step into an embodied encounter, a personal journey personified by the hiking figure as a fictitious wayfarer, to develop their own narrative with each element of the array – such as the deposit of hand-holdable ur rock forms made using just card, paper, glue and paint – gathering up into one corner as if by natural force
In conversation with the Colin Higginson one Saturday morning, when I popped in again while shopping with my young son at the nearby Farmers’ market, the artist voiced his fascination with the paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott’s idea of ‘Transitional Objects’ – those childhood things to which we attribute great significance and attachment: the worn blanket or the teddy with the missing eye. Such items are of almost magical significance as they mark for Winnicott a step on the path to independence, transferring attachment from the maternal body onto an object actively chosen – representing for the infant not only the sense that they are becoming part of the social world, but actively possess agency within it. Colin Higginson’s objects: his twigs, sticks and rocks, his copper sulphate resin casts and faceted graphite sheen on card are themselves ‘transitional objects’ – vehicular in the sense that their narrative capacity to expand liminal space enables the viewer to move between the inner world of memory to the outer world of social interaction. His exploration of “how meaning and value are constructed through narrative and artifice” – the fictions filling gaps in knowledge that create linear developments in archaeology – suggests that his ‘transitional objects’ do not rest as discrete autonomous artworks tied eternally to the biography of one creative individual. Instead, when the viewer interacts dialectically with the mutable pieces in the vital project space of the SVA gallery, they transform into talismanic elements in a mobile variegated field of interaction. This effect results in what may be termed a holistic experience of the exhibition – lending it the quality of a therapeutic space. The picture memory I now have of the show– a ‘transitional object’ in itself – is of it being ‘raised up’, as my 10-year-old son said of the work, as if the objects made of dense matter, stones and mountains, were levitating. In this context, the pieces resonate as stepping stones to health – easing the nostalgic pain of longing for the connection of being-in-place, the Edenic belonging in the world that Susan Stewart examines in her 1993 book, On Longing.
That Higginson should create a therapeutic environment allowing the viewer ‘to take the scenic route’ is the reward for its origination in dyslexic ‘mobile thinking’ and is symptomatic of the artist’s approach to integrating his making with his parallel practices, as founder and director of the participatory arts organisation, Art in Motion and as a personal coach for artists. He also identifies with the American pacifist poet, William Stafford, who himself spoke of “whispering to the stones, the drag, the weight”. Higginson’s body of work explores how ‘transitional objects’ hold value, in this case the value of holding in suspension the fluidity of thought, with its fractured myriad associations and references – like the facets of a crystal. We too are embodied ‘transitional objects’ – we move between forms and are forms ourselves – transgressing lines and boundaries within the curative space of the exhibition – leaving a lasting impression of what Higginson calls ‘the open question’.