Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New chemigrams from Australia (signed MH)

Higgins, Untitled 377-4, 16x20", 2014

Matt Higgins (see March 2013 post here) is a man who inhabits his darkroom trays the way a monk inhabits his monastery or a lighthouse keeper his lighthouse.  He never leaves.  If he does he may miss something, an insight or a vision.  A chemigram, he knows, is a process based only provisionally on a plan; once set in motion it must be allowed to grow on its own, like a child, to hatch surprises that one is never quite prepared for, to show off marvels that you won't want to miss.  He calls the darkroom 'my playground.'  He almost apologizes when he has to dash to the airport to see off a girlfriend - no time to waste here.

He works with hard resists, not soft: after all he's Australian and don't they wrestle with crocodiles?  Epoxy enamel is his favorite hard resist.  He flashes the paper briefly, then rolls on the enamel, letting it dry overnight.  In the morning he'll attack the paper with what he calls a scalpel, a tribute to the surgery required for deep art.  He has pre-dulled the blade by running it over concrete, for if it's too sharp it will cut right through enamel, emulsion, paper and make a hash of everything.

Ilford is his paper of choice though he finds Kentmere equally good, and he's also been experimenting with older papers, some of which give him a greater tonal range because they take longer to develop.  He uses mainly RC versions but fiber based paper is not overlooked, as with Untitled 197-3 below, done by using a varnish similar to Golden MSA and letting the varnish harden, then crunching up the paper in a ball, flattening it and immersing it in developer until a satisfactory pattern emerges.  It's helpful to have a heat press handy to give it a final pressing after a fix and wash.

Higgins, Untitled 197-3, 11x14", 2014
Matt works two papers at a time, taking them down the trays at a rate which allows him to concentrate on one while the other soaks.  Working under safelight, as an area is revealed beneath the resist he'll flash it with his phone to get a good black, then move on.  Areas meant to be white aren't flashed.  The pictures are all unique; he does not edition them.  As for chemistry, he goes by the book: Ilford Multigrade at 1:9 dilution, Ilford non-hardening fixer at 1:4, both at 20 degrees celsius.  He likes his stop bath a little warmer to help soften the paint.

If the bulk of his current work is black-and-white and shades of grey, that doesn't stop him from engaging in some freer dipping and dunking occasionally to achieve the classic gamut of chemigram colors.  He does these like star turns.  Here's one that uses nail polish, out of the Cordier playbook, with lights on and short residence times in both fixer and developer:

Higgins, Untitled 256-3, 11x14", 2014
One of the recent pieces I like best is this one, where Matt's skill with scalpel is in the service of a sensuously muscular concept:

Higgins, Untitled 254-5, 20x24", 2014

Here's another, this one done last year, a truly bravura display of mastery.

Higgins, Untitled 178-4, 16x20", 2013
At one point in his writings he recites the litany of the chemigram darkroom like this: 'Developer, water, fixer, water, touch, push, tease, feel, developer, water, fixer, water, touch, push, tease, feel.  On it goes until I'm hungry and have to face the world outside again.'  His obsession makes us feel totally privileged.

He'll be part of a team from the Australian National University to host an art summer school at Penland School of Crafts, North Carolina, USA, June 7th-19th, 2015, with Prof. Denise Ferris and others.  If interested contact Matt directly at