Jesse Higman’s Beautiful Social Abstraction

Jesse Higman has been making mammoth, glittery, abstract paintings since 1999. How they come about is a complicated, chaotic process, both time- and medium-sensitive. Higman and his team have mastered a system of wrangling paints, pigments and other fluids to create landscapes that only reveal their final form after every drop has evaporated. He invited us into his studio to take part in the tantalizing process, which often involves groups of a half-dozen people or more and takes up to three hours between prep and drying time. Currently, Higman averages about two paintings a month.

As we arrive at his studio located near Cal Anderson Park, Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” is blasting through a beefy PA system. Higman has been around Seattle since the grunge days and is as serious an audiophile as an artist; the right songs are queued at all times during production. A whirlwind of activity began long before we get there. Three assistants put the final touches on the blank painting surface. The studio is adjacent to Higman’s home, where every wall has been painted a cozy, chthonic black and there’s no shortage of rock and roll vibes and rainbow bursts of color.

Ribbons, balloons and other evidence of Higman’s recent birthday party strew the studio, along with collections of self-portraits that document Higman’s promiscuous experiments with style over the years.

To begin, Higman makes mixtures of mediums. It’s a different recipe every time. “This mix is a combination of gel medium and iridescent pigments with microflakes,” he explains. “I need to get a balance that’ll flow and still stay mixed but also remain unpredictable. The binder of the gel medium has some oil in it. You know how oil and water will mix and create a blast radius by pushing the water away? That might be an effect, but I’d rather have things flowing together.”

“I’m making the mixture a little thicker today. We’re going to pour a pearl white that’s been slightly diluted with transparent blue. We’ll pour that first, then we’ll make a second mixture made with gel and black ink. We’ll pour that over the white and it will look almost completely black. It will take about an hour to dry, as long as most of the excess has drained out through the hole and no lakes have formed. I’m hoping to get something somewhere between the white and the darker blue. When it’s dried, it will glow, kind of like a jellyfish.”

We gather around the “canvas”—a large piece of masonite with slightly rounded edges. This shape is a new departure for Higman. “I realized no one wants to stand on the corner of a square table,” he says. “It’s just not very social.” Shims have been wedged at irregular intervals between the masonite and the supporting frame underneath. This causes slight rippling and unevenness of surface, which in turn will determine the flow of the liquids toward the center.

“No matter how much I document it, it’s impossible to replicate an effect,” Higman says. “Sometimes I’ll try five days in a row to create an image I have in mind. I’ll keep records of my ratios then. But it tends to be a part of nature and the folly of life that you try, try, try and it’s only when you give up and mix up all your remainders—that’s when the magic happens.”

“I’m going to try for something really floral because this shape that’s developed is looking that way,” Higman says as we begin pouring and a shape comes into focus. He describes the next steps: “We start at the outside edges and pour. Lakes will form. Islands will dry up. We navigate and pour around.” He has reservations about the painting from the start. “In a way I don’t like it so far,” he says. “It’s very aggressive. The more energy you put in the paintings or the faster you pour, sometimes the more aberrant it looks. A slower pour produces a flow that evolves over time.”

“It begins to look like a landscape. I always try to get people to get down to a level where it looks like a miniature train set. You can see the little rivers and where they’re going to flow.”

Higman invites me to lay down a few drops of red pigment squeezed from eye droppers. The color swells, feathering slowly. “It looked different in my mind,” Higman says, watching it develop. “This fractaling is really interesting though. I’m not sure what’s causing it, but now I wouldn’t trade it. It’s so gothic and electric.”

“I believe in material,” Higman says. “I think this is a material world and we’re all going to die. You can trip out and say, you know, we aren’t a part of the material world or none of this is real. But if I fall on my head, I could die, and that’s real, and so are all the other threats. And you and I are real. We can touch each other. So in a way my work is about architecture that brings about touch and social interaction. I can justify geeking out on the details of the frame and the material because it facilitates that. The object is what’s going to bring us together.”

“I try to get as many people at once to participate in these paintings. We can usually fit up to eight people at a time. Often they’ll be dissatisfied and we’ll wipe it down and start over before it dries. But you have to know when to stop, when to control the impulse to just go crazy all night long. My vision with the bigger table I want to build is to allow around 20 people at once to participate. [See Higman’s design below.] I think then the social aspect will be really phenomenal—creating beauty in that large of a group, with that many visions, that much energy going into it.”

“The relationship created in this experience is the valuable part of this for me. If we’re looking at iridescence in a mud puddle, we have the impulse to say Look at the green or the blue! Come look at it from my side! We want to share our vision with the other and hope they get it through our eyes. There’s a triangle between the art and two people. It’s that relationship that is far more important than what’s going on with just the materials.”

Photos by Miguel Edwards, text by Amanda Manitach.