Endless Cycles of Misogyny: Julie Heffernan at P.P.O.W.
Julie Heffernan: Hunter Gatherer at P.P.O.W. Gallery
September 6 to October 6, 2018
535 West 22nd Street, 3rd Floor (between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, ppowgallery.com
For more than three decades now, Julie Heffernan has used her understanding of western painting as a jumping off point to explore her inner life and her relationship to the contemporary world. Particularly notable has been a mode of fictional self-portraiture a used as a platform from which to immerse herself in subconscious imagery that often involves a nude woman who – though bearing resemblance to the artist – acts as a metaphorical stand-in. It’s no surprise to see this strawberry blonde protagonist again in Heffernan’s current showat P.P.O.W., but this time she seems to appear with a new specificity.
In a series of predominantly large paintings, “Hunter Gatherer” presents this doppelganger posed against backdrops of salon-style galleries, and holding or otherwise sporting an interminable scroll. The effect of seeing this show is that galleries and scrolls alike wind their way from canvas to canvas. Both elements contain an overwhelming plethora of image references. The fictional galleries almost exclusively hang portraits of iconic women, including the likes of Gloria Steinem, Virginia Wolf, Rosa Parks, Nina Simone, Meryl Streep, Carolee Schneemann, and Joni Mitchell, while the scrolls primarily present details from Old-Master paintings as well as journalistic and cinematic images.
Pictures within pictures and hidden vignettes have always been a forte of Heffernan’s, but she invests these elements with added meaning by allowing the massed accumulation of pictures to become a way to discuss misogyny as a story that continually repeats itself.
As these images swirl around the nude female in the center of the paintings, her relationship to them emerges pictorially through her body. Her poised gaze in Self-Portrait With Daughters (all works, 2018) and the sensitively carved-out space she occupies pulls us into the picture, but as our eyes move downward to the scroll held at chest level, an abrupt sensation of flatness pushes us out via the sharp edges and warm, saturated hues of the form she is presenting. Despite this initial repulsion, the scroll coaxes us back into illusionistic space by depicting a Bosch-like forest scene that recedes into a seemingly endless dark hole. As the imagery of the scroll continues, the landscape morphs into a sinkhole of flesh and innards, revealing a cavity in which helpless bodies fall into an abstracted netherworld. This cavity is placed directly over the central figure’s uterus, further implicating her body into the narrative, which – as the title Self-Portrait with Daughters suggests- positions her as a mother figure. In Self-Portrait with Lock Heffernan’s seated figure straddles a large ball made of scrolls that conflates with her midsection to render her pictorially pregnant. Across the ball, images of Madonna and child are prominent and Poussin’s “Plague of Ashdod” appears as an ethereal mural behind her, which places the image of a child by her side. Whimsically braided belts hang in ovular forms from the figure’s waist in Self-Portrait With Spill, which are echoed by the large length of scroll draped between her outstretched hands, creating a giant pictorial vulva. With vaginal forms in mind, context is given to the pool of water at the figure’s feet coming from a fallen can, transforming it from water to fluid, suggesting sexual potency.
The woman standing contrapposto in Self-Portrait with Shipwreck sports a tool belt with a collection of scrotum-like sacks hanging from it. By hinting at castration, the image of Turner’s “Shipwreck” (1805) in the background poignantly becomes a tongue-in-cheek repurposing of the narrative as seamen meet their demise via their failed vessel while the portraits of women adorning the rest of the wall look on. The portraits in this particular painting are of women who have notably advocated for women’s rights, specifically relating to sexual abuse and harassment, such as Mechelle Vinson, Anita Hill, and Alyssa Milano.
Recent movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have re-invigorated the feminist critique of the heterosexual male gaze in western art history. In her recent Netflix special Nanette (2018) Hanna Gadsby uses her autobiographical style of stand-up comedy to lead up to a conclusion in which she confronts her audience with such a critique. And Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Ashwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” creates a reality in which women are violently forced back into archaic gender roles with the protagonist literally serving as an object to be impregnated. Heffernan’s “Hunter Gatherer” functions in a similar vein as she reminds us of the surplus of canonically celebrated, unapologetic images of rape and female objectification. Despite this history, the woman at the center of each of these new paintings is not portrayed as a victim, but stands assertively brazenly staring at the viewer. This outward gaze has appeared in Heffernan’s work for decades, but what was once coy has turned stoic. Although her presence and fixed attention seem calm — meditative even — her eyelids have become heavy with fatigue , as though she has been standing in the painting for an eternity, watching our karmic cycles in an endless, enervating loop. Heffernan’s undeniable painting chops and playful sense of composition are able to keep the paintings from becoming bleak, while her lovingly applied attention to detail coupled with the works’ overall grandeur give them a prayer like quality that she offers to viewers through the eloquent silence of images.