Andy Christian

Review for an exhibition at Tullie House Carlisle in 1981

I first saw a piece of Raymond Higgs’ work in the Northern Artists exhibition. It was the etching called Circles. Recently he explained to me how this work came about and how the picture explores the relationship between scale and control.

First of all he drew a dot and the photographed and projected it. Then he drew a circle an inch across then one as big as his arms would reach on a wall. Lastly he drew one giant circle on the tarmac of a multi storey car park. In each case he drew rapidly. To help us compare there from he made them of similar size. What each clearly shows is the limitations of the scale of man’s ability as a draftsman. The tiny dot which seems neat enough shows all its crudities when magnified, and the car park circle wobbles its way around in an ungainly way.

When I first saw that etching it was the simplicity and gestural beauty of these circles that galvanised my attention and made me remember it. Circles now has an explanation in my mind which accompanies the image. Though I understand its concepts more it hasn’t made the image more or less exciting for me. As a picture it can stand up without explanation as a beautiful, compelling abstract form.

It was Kandinsky who said-That which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realised in feeling, and The talent of the artist is the only road to feeling. Theory is the lamp which sheds light on the crystallized ideas of the past’. I mention this because Raymond Higgs explores scientific ideas like the limitations of vision and drawing but what is gratifying is that he seldom seems to illustrate theories. In the best works the theories are superseded by feelings.
Because of their directness and the economy of the images I like the etchings ‘Smoke’ and ‘The Irish Sea’. These qualities are also held by ‘Little Girl Skipping’ – a series of pencil drawings done in 1972. In these works Raymond manages many scientific and mathematical observations with a sense of wonder.

‘On Being Observed by at Fly’, ’Quadrat, ’Waves’, ’The Side of My Nose’ ’Rain on a Window’ and ‘Train Window’ all have their framed explanations. They are paintings which were conceived and painted over a long time and they deserve more than cursory glances. All of these, I think, are enhanced by their explanations.

It is good to see someone who is concerned to make his work more accessible to people and the efforts he goes to explain the more complicated works. At times in those he falls into some traps of assumed understanding of personalised words in the viewer/reader, and these might confuse. But his good intention is to be applauded at a time when a number of artists seem bent on maintaining a tiny narcissistic band of fellow painters/appreciators.

Finally, I must admit that I think the etchings are the best works in the show. The forced asceticism of the medium and the distilled ideas in them seem to me to be much more resolved and tar-reaching than some of the necessary but more complex paintings.

Andy Christian 1980

Duncan Smith

Review for an exhibition at the Royal Academy Schools in 1979

As an artist and a person Raymond Higgs demonstrates the contradictions of dogged independence. The work and life reveal relations between the ideas, perceptions and roles produced by this society and its notions of individual creative freedom. He is disinterested in the history of art and its contemporary practice, but identifies himself totally as an artist. He is passionately involved with science, but has a sense of the world built up of unique, directly perceived primary experiences. He revels in the input to his rural home of electronic communications systems, but in his output delights in ancient media.

Higgs had virtually completed a mainstream academic apprenticeship before enrolling as a student at The Royal Academy Schools and spent his time there and immediately afterwards working in an individual and often isolated way through many of the preoccupation’s and values of the formalist modem academy. The image was tilted to correspond with the vertical picture plane. Colour, composition and finally form were severed from external reference. Picture making became a hunt for shape”, a balancing of ambiguous figure/ground relationships within a shallow pictorial space and an interrogation of the shape of the picture itself. Rectangular works with strong references to their four corners and edges were followed by canvases of other shapes and etchings printed from plates cut or burnt through.

Having reached the point at which the works referred only to their own physical existence and history, he reintroduced external meaning. His art became a means of focusing and understanding his perceptive outside the studio. Many of these concerns are continuous with previous art history but his attitude was much influenced by the objectivity of science which he was now studying.

Many pieces investigate the limits to our perceptions. “The Side of My Nose” plots the field of vision as we focus at different distances. Many make visible in a fixed image, examinable as we choose, phenomena presented to our senses as a sequence of images changing, or normally invisible. In “On Being Observed by a Fly”, our single perception of a short period of time is split up by imagining it through the mosaic eye of a fly into discrete moments which we can look at separately. In “Quadrat the monocultural/growth, reproduction and death of a plant perceivable over fourteen years as isolated images are collapsed into one moment. “Wave-lengths” makes visible the relationship between the wave length and frequency of electro-magnetic waves.

The subject of some works is psychomotor skill. “Circles” takes the classical test of graphical ability and shows how it overlooks human scale. The shapes of circles from the smallest produceable by hand to one greatly exceeding the size of the body are presented for comparison. “Drawing Game” is derived from a game involving the disguise of drawing style. Other works reintroduce spatial questions. The picture plane of Rain on a Window” represents glass on which are painted letters and the trace of fingers in the condensation on the inside of the glass. We see rain and through it a wall. “Train Window” records relative movement at different distances.

This exhibition gives it viewers a first opportunity to look at fifteen years of the independent development of Raymond Higgs’s work, while it gives him an opportunity to consider its social use.

Duncan Smith 1979

Jenny Cowern

Raymond Higgs was trained in painting and printmaking at Carlisle College of Art, and then at The Royal Academy Schools. He lived and worked in London and Sheffield for four years before setting up a studio in Cumbria in 1968.

He has concentrated consistently on the development of his art except for a brief period in the mid 1970’s studying Chemistry with the Open University. This was of particular importance to him as it opened up an interest in experimenting with chemicals/materials which crossed the bounderies between conventional areas of printmaking. His prints reflect his great interest in process and colour.

Jenny Cowern 1986