Hillary, oil on canvas (detail)
Andrea Higgins's new paintings have the uncommon ability to be at once convincingly abstract, absolutely specific, and totally engaging. Borne out of an interest in fabric as a social construct and traditional craft, Higgins meticulously layers brush atop stroke and, as if with warp and weft, she weaves canvases that recreate enlarged swatches of cloth. In this series, The Presidents' Wives, Higgins scrutinizes their signature styles and the implicit therein. By relying on the mnemonic power of color-and with some help from titles-she conjures up clothing that has become symbolic of specific moments and eras in history. Higgins's bias is of a restraint that allows her paintings to match Minimalist Formalism with multivalent meaning.
After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1995, Higgins traveled to Indonesia on a grant to study indigenous textile practices. From there she moved into her grandmother's closet producing Out of a Bandbox. These plaid and herringbone works are intimate portraits that reflect the strong ties woven between wearer, worn, and watcher. They reveal the garment as a visual shorthand for identity, yet a discrete part of the accretive nature of style.
With President's Wives Higgins moves her hypothesis from the personal to the public and political arenas. Unlike the mercurial cycles of Hollywood, the celebrity of First Ladies is-for four years-concrete and uncontested. Yet there remains a surprising amount of latitude in the influence they wield. Their particular sartorial sensibility is hand-in-glove with the way they project themselves and the favor with which they are received. It seems rather than a formula of good taste, apparel, and all of its associative accouterments, it can function as a propaganda of sorts, usually confirming what the public already adores or despises. The American version of royal wardrobe watching began in earnest when Jacqueline Kennedy brought the house of Givenchy to the White House. Through her discriminating preference for haute couture (in solid colors more flattering on the then new powerful tool of television), she projected sophistication, glamour, and elegance onto the Kennedy administration. By extension, according to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, biographer of first ladies, Jackie became a symbol of the liberation from the notion that America had to be bourgeois. Her role as global fashionista and cultural ambassador was confirmed by the recent blockbuster The White House Years at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Higgins herself devotes three of six works in this exhibition to her, including jackie (mexico) and jackie (bogota). The iconic pink Chanel boucle suit in jackie (dallas) is conceived as a diptych: a square panel built up with pink paint, flanked on the left by a slender smoother blue panel representing the piping. That it was JFK's favorite suit and that she refused to change out of until hours after his assassination, has only deepened its symbolic dimension.
The actual images of these outfits are so clear in the collective American consciousness, that overt reference would be overload. Higgins's oblique approach is both restrained and complex. Her labor-intensive process of building up precise layers of color and texture render the canvases and their ideas specific and general, unique yet cut from the same cloth. The hue and weave become synechdoche of a larger sensibility and personal (or publicist) expression.
After Roslyn Carter's anti-fashion statements, Nancy Reagan was determined to return a sense of style and formality to the presidency. To many, her flamboyant and expensive clothes were a reflection of the disproportionate economic excess of the '80s as advocated by her husband's administration. Everything about Mommy was confirmed by her domineering reds and exacting taste. Captured here in nancy, Higgins depicts the dynamic wavy weave of moire that mimics the forceful vogue of that time and lady. Four large circles of contrasting texture sit stolidly within the blue blood-navy canvas of barbara. The rounds-within-a-square composition subtly suggest her signature baroque pearls and her stalwart resistance to all publicist-mandated makeovers. Barbara's grandmotherly recidivism was embraced as a mark of constancy and Conservatism. Everyone squirmed as Hillary tried on endless outfits and hairstyles in an attempt to find a look that suited both her figure and agenda. Finally, the black pantsuit emerged and, as depicted in the aggressive pink and black hillary, confirmed the perception of her as mannish and manipulative. Here the pink accent intended to soften, instead seems pushy and disingenuous. A photograph of Hillary welcoming Laura Bush to the White House was captioned: After two terms in the White House, Hillary Clinton's black power suit is surrendering to Laura Bush's colorful tweeds. That purple houndstooth outfit, for which she was soundly ridiculed, inspired Higgins to create Laura, whose vibrant tones and pattern reflect an innocent garishness, or an ambitious attempt for bright contrast to her predecessor. Presidential wifely style, as revealed in these tacit tactile textiles, is now recognized as part of the personal and political establishments. Like entering history's closet, Andrea Higgins's tableaux recall moments and attitudes defined as much by self-conscious construction as public opinion. And just as these outfits outlive administrations, so Higgins's abstractions transcend the vicissitudes of representation and reside in the realm of independent visual viability.
Laura Richard Janku