Picking Up the Pieces: Julie Heffernan’s Honest Pessimism
A magical tree, most of its smaller branches lopped off, towers above a miniscule landscape from which it has sprouted. It seems to continue growing upwards indefinitely and in its branches is stationed a languid avatar of Jack, of beanstalk fame, now approaching manhood. Jack clasps and is also tied to a compacted sphere composed mostly of fruit, birds and flowers that reminds us of a giant Christmas ornament. He is surrounded by small birds of varied brightly colored exotic species that nestle in the branches around him. Jack, whose features I am told are the artist’s son’s, appears in other guises but with the same physiognomy in several of the other canvas on display (the show was seen in April at the University Art Gallery at California State University-Stanislaus.)
In Self-Portrait Picking Up the Pieces, his baggage is more cultural than natural. Visible through the interstices of a loosely meshed net are giant sculpted Buddha heads sporting hairstyles that could be mistaken for bunches of grapes, ripped untimely from the ceiling of a late renaissance palazzo. These are interspersed with oversized shell motifs and other quasi-architectural ornaments. Stranger still, many of the “objects”, upon close inspection, turn out to be vignettes from lost paintings that we almost recognize. Upon a distorted grid of metal pipes are mounted giant medallions displaying bizarre images of destruction that might have been purloined from the background of a Bosch painting. Some incongruously contain words, like “oops” or “hard place,” the latter humorously positioned next to a large rock
It would be arduous to itemize the dizzying range of appropriated objects and images that are packed into Heffernan’s paintings, which read as a Borgesian collection of which they form the animated inventory or catalogue, a kind of cultural and biological stocktaking. It is as if the artist is on a Messianic mission to collect examples of every period, culture and species prior to what one must only assume to be an impending apocalypse. This notion gains credence from “Self-Portrait as Burial Mound” where pairs of crazed animals are released from a pagoda-like structure. Noah is nowhere to be seen, but a sign says “OHNOAH” and others say “Almost done” and “Roar”.
But what to make of the abundant, almost ubiquitous, explosions of fertility that might suggest some hope that can be gleaned from the future, concretized in the Christmas ornament clutched by the “budding boy” Jack? His languid demeanor in many of these canvases evokes hints of the Pre-Raphaelites and their attempts to build a culture around medieval romance, so despite the cool and limpid light of spring, the frequent blossoming forth of flower, fruit and foliage, the youthful promise of the “budding boy”, for me, there is something disturbingly fin de siècle about these paintings. It is as if the plants and trees have been over-fertilized or genetically engineered, as if Julie Heffernan is inter-splicing the genes, not only of the flora and fauna that she depicts so lovingly but of the different cultural influences, whether they be derived from Jan Breughel, Remedios Varo, Sandro Botticelli, DG Rossetti or a wealth of other effortlessly evoked artists. Surely this might be the source for my unease in the presence of these superficially Arcadian scenes, which flatter to deceive. Nature and culture have been grafted together in ways that suggest the manhood of the main protagonist will be dogged by the hollow promises of a genetically engineered paradise. Societal consumption, the superabundance of artifacts and the ability through technology to remake the world according to man’s unfulfillable appetites are subtly satirized in Heffernan’s consumption and manipulation of other art and other artists’ styles. This might be seen, particularly with her recent incorporation of text labels, as a gentle but pointed critique of postmodernism.
The pervading mood is one of hope soured, but it is also more than this. Heffernan has treated her canvases to a virtuosic painterly technique culled from the collected resources of European art, while focusing on the flamboyant trompe-d’oeil effects of Dutch and Spanish still lives. She has packed them with countless, carefully selected quotations and appropriations, from Adam Elsheimer to Arnold Böcklin to Max Ernst. The entire edifice groans under the weight of these accumulated riches, however, which now read as so many obsolete jujus. It is as if she is pulling the rug out from underneath her own feet, and we find ourselves gasping, hoping upon hope that the human spirit can continue to shine through, despite the fact that all our aspirations seem to rest on Jack, the ‘budding boy’ who embodies the next generation. We have to hope that no more branches will be severed from his tree whose naked stumps are prettified by colors painted over their growth rings. We have to hope that we can build a culture from the over-taxed resources of the earth, from the late mannerist phase of postmodernism and the accumulated relics of the past. Whether this can be achieved through a savagely accelerated form of hybridization, à la Monsanto, seems in doubt. Thus the tragic but honest pessimism at the core of Heffernan’s endeavor.