San Francisco

Andrea Higgins

The intricately patterned surfaces of Andrea Higgins’s recent paintings were inspired by literary classics—Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, for example, or Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, or The Confessions of Lady Nijo (a graceful memoir of court life in thirteenth-century Japan). Interpreting these authors’ exquisitely nuanced descriptions of clothing and household objects with the accuracy of a forensic anthropologist, Higgins creates the woven texture of fabrics (and, in some works, delicate details from china) on a vastly enlarged scale. The resulting optical abstractions—in which tiny segments of warp and weft, layer upon layer, are rendered with thousands of precisely shaped brushstrokes—function as portraits. And like any portrait of the powerful, they suggest the complexity and the constrictions of the codes and rituals associated with socioeconomic status and taste.

In an earlier series, Higgins evoked American first ladies by depicting similarly enlarged swatches of signature outfits—an all-red rectangle that might have been snipped from a moiré-patterned Scaasi dress for Nancy Reagan, for instance. The works in this show build on that smart foundational idea but show greater sophistication and intellectual ambition. This enhanced rigor is partly due to these patterns’ literary provenance, but there is greater historical and cultural depth as well. In the diptych Dorian, 2008, a panel of shimmering blue-gray weave represents the kind of “morning trousers” a wealthy aesthete such as Wilde’s protagonist might have worn. The panel to its right pictures a detail from a very particular kind of Sèvres porcelain: a florid lattice of green and gold entwined with stylized pink and peach roses, sandwiched between borders of classically inspired geometric patterning. The contrast between these two panels’ designs creates a sense of scale and focuses our attention on craft—to human touch, in a way—that Higgins’s woven surfaces alone do not. The conjunction of the handmade and the mechanically generated accentuates the fact that Higgins’s project is, at its center, about something slipperier than social caste: taste itself. Taste is relative, not only to ideals of beauty and harmony, but also to political and social events. What seems exquisite in one era becomes ghastly in the next.

By adding greater historical and cultural richness to her project, Higgins is able to nuance the work in new and unexpected ways. Her use of color has always been intelligently orchestrated, but the repressed, stultifying palette used in the triptych Babbitt, 2004, is truly inspired. Panels in a tweedy, flat brown and a pin-striped bluish gray flank a beige rectangle decorated with a floral motif that is meant to evoke the upholstery on the sofa belonging to George F. Babbitt’s “bohemian” mistress. The flowers are pinwheels of white, orange, and blue, but their brightness seems to have been dimmed by the leaden presence of Babbitt—whose business suits represent the dark side of tastefulness: its tendency toward conformity and rigidity, and toward control over those who aspire to it.

Maria Porges