recent paintings by julie heffernan 2019-02-28¢ artists, we love our lives even though...
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RECENT PAINTINGS BY JULIE HEFFERNAN
ABOUT THE ARTIST Three weeks after she finished the works for When the Water Rises: Recent paintings by Julie Heffernan, Baton Rouge had unprecedented rains, dropping two feet of water in forty-eight hours. The rain brought catastrophic flooding, lending the exhibition – curated by Louisiana State University Museum of Art – an air of prophecy. Through this exhibition, Heffernan articulates her need to provoke thought and change. She considers the promotion of awareness and action the ultimate duty of an artist.
Heffernan emotionally portrays figures being called to action. These satirically charged social protagonists are determined to survive and save the planet. They are women of action: we see them building, gathering, and cleaning up. (Kelley, 2017). Too busy to look at the viewer, they are diligently tending various fires, watering, hoisting, pulling, and dragging. They are bound by their botanical architecture with belts and backpacks made of rope. They carry new world necessities like broken idols, endangered creatures, and historical paintings that will all be used to rework and invent a new purpose. “I believe in powerful imagery that can manifest truth and change minds.” (Heffernan, 2017). Heffernan points a finger at metaphysical issues by showing a delicate post- apocalyptic world. Her cast of characters now roam a landscape where all is not well in the “madness of man-made calamities.” (Heffernan, 2017) Heffernan addresses environmental degradation with profound visual activism. Her work is breathtaking and fulfilling at the same time making it easy to suspend disbelief in the face of widespread pretense.
In the exhibition catalogue for Heffernan’s solo exhibition at P.P.O.W. Gallery, Sky is Falling (2013), Rebecca Solnit described Heffernan’s work as “a new kind of history painting.” Her use of traditional materials, careful chiaroscuro (the use of light and shadow in drawing and painting), and lush depiction of trees speak of a prior age. Heffernan’s creative process begins with image streaming. “It’s not like daydreaming or remembering. They are spontaneous pictures that I just sit back and watch. And then I’ll fall asleep. When I wake up, it’s at the point where the images start to stream in, and out of those, I’ll usually ‘see’ something.” (West, 2011).
Heffernan sees her work as a series of pictures within pictures – “a cornucopia of pockets” as she calls it. (Heffernan, 2017). She treats each element as if it were its own landscape. She looks for energy in the detailed mini landscapes of rocks, furs, and trees. Drawn in by the initial beauty of the work the viewer is treated with secret moments and “wild cards” that spool out of the paintings in layers. By paying attention to complexity, Heffernan attempts connection with the world and its populace. She links the laborious process of painting in ornate detail with the core of her message: the care of the world.
Julie Heffernan was born in 1956, in Peoria, Illinois. She moved to Northern California with her family at an early age. Raised Catholic, Heffernan found herself enthralled with religious imagery. Sitting in church she would gaze at pictures of saints and fantasize how they would move and interact. She attended University of California at Santa Cruz, graduating with a B.F.A. in painting and printmaking in 1981, and received her M.F.A. from Yale School of Art in painting and printmaking in 1985. Heffernan currently lives in New York City and works as a professor of fine arts at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Represented by P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York, Catherine Clark in San Francisco, and Mark Moore in Culver City, CA, Heffernan creates sensuous figurative paintings, and stages narratives of surreal environments. Her construction is flawless with a “seamless finished product.“ (West, 2011).
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CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM More than anything else, Heffernan’s work concerns itself with issues of climate change, awareness, and activism. “I needed to do this, to imagine another way, give myself a hose to stop all the burning,” Heffernan says, “to calm my fury at what I hear and read every day about the realities of climate change and its effects on people all over the globe.” (Seed, 2013). These paintings, while intrinsically beautiful and extensively detailed, act as warnings in their portrayal of an irreparably damaged, flooded earth. Technology is sparse in these symbolic visions, and humans struggle directly against the newly unbalanced forces of nature. She paints the disasters and their debris, and she lists climate change deniers by name.
Heffernan gives us a humanity that has reinvented its relationship to the environment. She tells us, “My figures end up being engulfed in their circumstances. These days I find them engaged in building things, or cleaning up, the way I wish I could clean up our earth.” Instead of a disposition towards dominations, her human subjects possess an attitude of cooperation and resiliency. They do the slow, every day work required to live in this world, mirrored by Heffernan’s thoughtful rendering of it. “I wish I could build wind energy kites,” she says. “But I can imagine them and paint them.” (Samet, 2015).
Self Portrait as Castaway, 2016. Oil on canvas. 68 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.
High School & Middle School • What role can Heffernan’s paintings play in the efforts of
environmental activists? In what ways can these paintings affect change? How do they inspire you to affect change?
• Do these paintings seem more politically relevant, or more enduring and timeless? What in the paintings make you say so?
• What distinguishes Heffernan’s landscapes from others you are familiar with?
• What are the people in these paintings doing?
• Do you think Heffernan’s paintings show our world in the future, or a different world altogether? Why?
• Why do you think the artist included people in her paintings? How would it change the way you think of her paintings if there were no people?
Self Portrait as Hive Minder, 2016. Oil on canvas. 60 x 84 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.
Sky Burial, 2016. Oil on canvas. 54 x 100 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.
SELF-PORTRAITURE Heffernan titled most of the work in this exhibition as a self-portrait of some kind: Self Portrait as Red Tent, Self-Portrait on the Brink, Self-Portrait as Great Acceleration. Each time Heffernan portrays herself, she shows her personal investment in the issues of her paintings. She admits her own failings and renews her commitment to address difficult topics.
Heffernan talks about her self-portraits as a form of self-care. Heffernan says, “Finding form, complicated intricate form, for your own experience is essentially making the most exquisite sense of your lousy, boring life, which is the best therapy. I think that is why, as artists, we love our lives even though they are really hard.” (Samet, 2015). Calling these paintings self-portraits unites their foreboding and hopeful aspects. These self-portraits are ways of making meaning, spacious enough for life’s joys and hardships.
By representing her own body, Heffernan pushes back against the idea that female nudes automatically reinforce the notion of male gaze. Discussing her influences, she says:
We see these attributes – holy transfiguration, muscularity, activity – resurface in Heffernan’s work, particularly in Self-Portrait as Fountain Head, and Self-Portrait as Standing my Ground.
Self Portrait as Fountainhead, 2016. Oil on canvas. 96 x 56 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.
“So many…female figures did not primarily exist, to my mind, for anyone’s voyeuristic pleasure, but rather for the access they allowed to a greater depth of women’s experience, as in paintings like Titian’s Mary Magdalene. It tells a story about suffering and how it dis-integrates us, captured in the way Magdalene’s hair transforms into consuming fire. As for Rubens, his female nudes are always depicted as muscular, activated and powerful in their agency, and I always look to them as figures of thrillingly complex emotion…I take my cue from those kinds of great artists, to look with empathy and imagine my way into the struggles the women I paint are having.” (Knudson.)
Self Portrait as Great Acceleration, 2016. Oil on canvas. 67 x 60 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.
Self Portrait as Standing My Ground, 2016. Oil on canvas. 68 x 66 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.
Self Portrait as the Other Thief, Oil on Canvas. 2013. 76 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.
Self Portrait on the Brink, 2013. Oil on canvas. 66 x 68 inches. Courtesy of P.P.O.W.
High School & Middle School • How does Heffernan characterize the female figures that are
central to many of these paintings? How does the figure relate to