Andrea Higgins, ‘Eric Fanning’, 2016, Hosfelt Gallery

A recipient of the prestigious SECA Art Award from SFMOMA, San Francisco-based artist, Andrea Higgins (1970-present) is known for her intricate paintings of fabric swatches that draw on the expressive power of textiles to create evocative, abstract portraits. Inspired by childhood trips to Britex Fabrics with her grandmother, and a stay in Indonesia where she observed the labor-intensive process of weaving extravagant sarongs, Higgins “weaves” textile patterns with paint.

After making portrait paintings of the glen-plaids and herring-bones worn by her grandmother, and realizing that the fabrics inspired more memories than any photograph, Higgins became interested in the concept of representing a person through the representation of a textile—a concept she has since explored in portraits of First Ladies and characters from novels. Considering the ubiquitous aesthetic importance of fabric across time and culture, Higgins was also fascinated by the ability of textiles to carry certain associations and to present a particular image of their wearer to the outside world.

Higgins’ works painstakingly reproduce the warp and weft of fabric through meticulously applied layers of paint. From a distance, the larger pattern is evident and seamless; it is only up close, that the thickness and three-dimensionality of her work becomes apparent, as does the uniformity of the repetitive brushstrokes with which Higgins brings the fibers to life—weaving dynamic images out of paint. In this regard, Higgins’ work is another example of how many small elements can come together to form something much greater than themselves. Between these fibers, the artist also allows the woven nature of the canvas support to show through, calling attention to the self-referential nature of her work—a representation of a textile on a textile. These abstract portraits reflect the personality, taste, and cultural or historical context of their subjects, but they also allow each viewer to bring in their own associations and memories to the work; impacting the work’s significance and making it personally relevant for each viewer.

This piece is a conceptual portrait of Eric Fanning, the first openly gay Secretary of the Army and the first openly gay head of any service in the US Military. Nominated by President Obama and confirmed in May 2016, Fanning is represented by the Army Service Ribbon, a military award of the US Army established by the Secretary of the Army in 1981. The multi-colored ribbon represents the spectrum of military specialties in which officers and enlisted soldiers may enter upon completion of their initial training. Higgins’ magnified representation of this ribbon clearly points to Fanning’s military service, but is also evocative of the rainbow flag—a symbol of LGBT pride and social movements since the 1970s.

A powerful political painting, this work celebrates the progress of the LGBT movement as personified in the person of Eric Fanning, while also carrying associations of the movement’s history and the work that still remains to be done. That this work is being exhibited in San Francisco, a past and present epicenter of the LGBT movement, adds further context to this work and makes it especially relevant.

Though abstract, Higgins’ paintings are uncannily familiar, evoking rich associations and memories that have different, but undeniable significance for each individual viewer. Their source, masterful fabrication, and appeal to the viewer’s imagination, combine to make Higgins’ works both uniquely engaging and incredibly moving.

About Andrea Higgins