The road to Grants, N.M., follows alongside El Malpais, the badlands, and stretches in the sun like an asphalt rattlesnake, warming itself on the black rocks that lumber and jag towards Acoma Pueblo. El Malpais is an ancient river of volcanic magma, 114,000 acres in vein, that only stopped flowing 700 years ago, a mere moment in geological time. The art of Walter Biggs, which is geo-poetic in impulse, is created with a sense of this same measure of time in mind, and with the sort of materials that constitute the elemental nature of our world, from its crust to the molten depths of its magnetic core.
A painting like Biggs' Continent is truly hemispherical in material -- graphite, mica and sand. Its basin and range-type topography suggests the tectonic drift and crush of the planet's outermost skin. Biggs' range of perspective often flips from the overhead macro-LandSat view of Continent to the infinitesimal, universe-in-my-thumbnail micro view as seen in a painting like Rose, in which leather-like patterns of worn, warm color form an abraded surface of densely woven space, which can alternately appear oceanic and grandly expansive. In color and zoom, this painting recalls Agnes Martin's equally poetic and famous The Rose from 1964.
Typically most oil paintings are constructed by layers of film. Films of pigments suspended in oil are built up in thin liquid skeins that dry over time. In Biggs' process, by contrast, he actively works the paint from its liquid state to its solid state by rubbing or sanding the surface until completely dry. The heat from the friction caused by his moving hand is the catalyst in the chemical drying of the paint rather than the passive entropic process of more typical air drying. The act of polishing the paintings' surfaces -- which still remains inflected with peaks and valleys -- determines the image.
In this show, Biggs presented the worn sheets of sandpaper and emery cloth, which he used during different stages on the larger paintings, as "drawings," their bent and crumpled surfaces representing the passage of the artist's hand. Their ground-down facture, combined with the papers' uniquely scuffed and powdery surfaces, gave the drawings the impacted look of meteorites or lichen-laced rocks. Here Biggs' act of polishing the paintings' surfaces becomes the image.
Another aspect of Biggs' painting, one that's probably lost in reproduction, is the works' gentle iridescence and dependence on light. I saw his beautiful painting Slope slip from blue to lavender and gray as the light in the gallery changed in just a short period of time. The color of the painting reminds me of the soft saline blue achieved over time by the oldest icebergs near the arctic circle. Looking at the surface of Slope was like stepping into a Manhattan intersection in summertime, and feeling that hot roll of pavement bend beneath your feet as if you were suddenly standing on somebody's chest. Slope is a genuine formation, that doesn't appear to have been built-up because the artist was interested in faking some labor intensive look, rather the beauty of the surface is a result of the integrity of the process in service to the image.
In Acoma Pueblo I saw a Navajo window, one foot square and two inches thick, with a space on the side where your fingers could feel around its width. It was made from a single sheet of mica, a slab of semi-transparent material that was formed by nature, not man, and that was large enough to be used as a window. I thought I would never see anything like it again until I saw the paintings of Walter Biggs. He uses mica, among other materials, and he makes long-lasting paintings that make distinctions between the real and the artificial seem superficial.
Walter Biggs at Trans Hudson Gallery, 416 West 13th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.