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Julie Heffernan: New Paintings
Peter Miller Gallery
In the mists of ancient belief, long before Homer who was only a blind echo, the peoples of Europe held the earth, and nature, to be female. It... She gave birth, growth; nourished and renewed; gave health and healing. The perception emerged as Gaia, and Demeter, blossomed heretically in folkways and in the Renaissance; and is alive again today.
"New Paintings by Julie Heffernan" at the Peter Miller Gallery, Chicago, presents seven fantasies in oil on canvas which, through the artist's instincts, visually renew that theme. They display a polished technique and playfulness, a cultivated paganity and a rich delight for the eye. And in them, icons of human culture are reconciled with a Nature that complies, rather than is conquered. The artist, whose own face serves as a unifying focus for the series, guides the viewer through a pilgrimage of scenes that suggest a Baroque allegory, one which touches history, and heresy, and the timeless link of human nature to the natural world. It is play. But it uneases, all-the-while it delights.
'A Baroque Allegory' is a first impression, but it lingers in the mind -- for it was then that the Renaissance's renewed interest in the pagan gods was most fully melded into the prevailing Christian culture, although even in Shakespeare's comedies it was at a high. One need only think of A Midsummer Night's Dream with its faery world of Puck, King Oberon and Queen Titania. There are echoes of that here also.
Heffernan's "Self-Portrait as Girl God" (1999: 60"x52") is a prime example. The background seems a subdued tapestry of graceful, decorative foliage. The young child at the center wears a headdress of leaves and fruit -- apples, peaches, grapes of the vine -- in what evokes both Demeter, earth goddess and lady of the fruits, and her celebrant, Bacchus. The pose is one familiarly used for Venus emerging, and here she holds a pearl and a shell. But what must be most intriguing is the lower pattern formed of pearls and gems. The artist noted at the opening, that at first she conceived a cage. But nature does not bind. And her intuition suggested a garment. Would such a 'Girl God' need adornment? In the end, the pearls and gemstones seem to flow, continually renewed, as if droplets from a fountain: like threads of life, linked together but freely so. And within the penumbra of that glittering fall, on the ground below, a menagerie of beasts in miniature, as Shelley said, "live, move, and there are nourished." In the bestial microcosm at her feet there is violence, and thoughtless immediacy, but it is limited by her presence. Shelley's Homer may be right -- "These from thy wealth thou dost sustain." The image seems Baroque, but it echoes a pagan antiquity. Carl Jung, and the viewer, may make of it what they will. It is a delightful canvas.
"Self-portrait as Girl God" hangs prominently on a wall facing the entrance, but "Self-Portrait as Infanta Underwater" (71"x67.5") is first in the series. Here, the background is a shaded bayou, but the immediate foreground is unmistakably a coral reef bed. And the artist intended the incongruity to suggest a wide-ranging domain for the infanta, a term normally reserved to religious usage. A gathering of apples floats about the waist of the infanta. Heffernan noted that apples suggested the tactile and sensuous. It is an element which further evokes a harmonic chord of Eve in Eden with Venus born of water. Heffernan states that she does not begin with an ordered concept. She allows the visual elements to inspire a final end. Each canvas ends as a question for the viewer.
"Self-Portrait With Bird's Nest" (52"x68.5") presents the infanta in a crown of flowers. Attending birds grasp streamers from the crown in an image which suggests the game of maypole once common in rural Europe. And it is a rustic game thought to be descended from pre-Christian rituals. The infanta stands within a circular pool and the artist noted it constituted a site of use, and a reclamation of order amid the albeit bucolic wilderness. In this work, the wilderness evokes the arranged and orderly rural pastorals of a Gaspard Poussin far more than any primordial forest.
Heffernan's paintings not only play with incongruities of ecology, but with scale: she delights in small worlds amid the large. In "Self-Portrait as Infanta Holding Court" (69.5"x77"), in middleground, four diminutive nude male archers on the left fire arrows at three opposing archers at the right of the canvas. Five dogs circle in a ring about the infanta, who holds a child incarnation of herself. To the upper right hang carib fruit, while below are the recurring image of apples. Heffernan commented that it was the form and surface that brought the carib pods to mind, but the ensembles of fruit, flower and lush but mannered foliage evoke a ritual attendant to fertility, a Court of Venus or of Artemis. And the flowered and fruited crown so often seen on the Girl God resonates to past images such as Caravaggio's "Bacchus" (1593-94) -- though Heffernan's child goddess glows with serenity and decorum.
In Heffernan's work the disparities between known objects and their scale in the painting still more imply an iconographic field of vision. The eye discerns what at first seems like a toy Taj Mahal, a French-style mini-maze of garden hedge... Lilliputian archers at battle. Whatever their importance to the world of men, they seem playthings in the larger gardens of the Girl God. Which is not to claim that this is necessarily the artist's intent. Heffernan has noted her first concerns are with the composing of the canvas image.
There is a sequential development, almost a subplot, among the Lilliputian actors and props in these paintings as hung here. In "Self-Portrait as Medium" (66"x57") one notes, not tiny archers, but a flaming cannonade in the background. And this stands in even greater (and darker) contrast to the Girl God who issues forth life-giving water with her right hand, and who, with her left hand, dispenses sweetness which draws a cluster of bees to her. At the painting's right stand three dogs in anticipation of benefits, while a fourth, watchful and alert, rounds inward toward the bowl between them, a bowl filling with water from the Girl God. If viewed as hung, as a series, the outer terrane, and action, would seem to escalate toward violence and confinement--cages, fishbowls, and outside the goddess's penumbra.
A viewer should keep in mind that what may seem a development of theme, may well be the natural outcome of organic and formal composition. However, in the fervor of creating, the instincts of an artist often display a greater coherence and a cryptic logicality that exceeds afterthoughts and analysis. Art historian Ernst Grombrich, in his essay "Aims and Limits of Iconology," noted that: "In looking at a work of art we will always project some additional significance that is not actually given," and added: "Art is always open to afterthoughts, and if they happen to fit we can never tell how far they were part of the original intention."
Be it pool, a ring of dogs, or, as in "Self-Portrait in Purgatorium" (60"x52") a flaming hoop, the female image in Heffernan's paintings is center focus and encircled. In "Impossible Marriage" (52"x137"), the Girl God and her consort, a masculinized alter-ego -- her very image, crouch within a watery pool. Each holds a snake, while to the left there gathers an assembly of frogs and salamanders, a snake's natural prey. It is about this charmed circle that the viewer notes the miniature Taj Mahal... a diminutive maze of hedgerows.... And here, the apples draw particular notice. If these are the emblemata of marriage, the scene also contains within it darker signs.
The final painting in this exhibition at Peter Miller Gallery is the "Self-Portrait in Purgatorium." In this oil, the Girl God and her male alter-ego, twin of a cryptic androgyny, stand within a flaming hoop. In the foreground stands a cage of assorted, brightly-colored finches and lovebirds, and to their right, goldfish in a bowl. It is a painting of life confined, while in the background a volcano -- as if a violence now extends into the earth -- spews flame and cinder abroad.
Taken as a whole, Heffernan's paintings create the suspicion that one is before newly discovered late Renaissance canvases. And that a high inspiration and very accomplished technique had been put to service toward some Eleusinian mystery cult -- that one survived the death of pagandom. The general palette is subdued, certainly by most contemporary standards, but that befits a timeless deftness of technique. In the balance of the Girl God focus against subsidiary motifs and images, in the coherent and 'readable' arraignment of detail, and in her iconic presentation of fruit and flora, Heffernan achieves what was hard to imagine, something akin to a Caravaggio made decorous and genteel. And the oils, all seven of them, are a delight.
If the paintings seem an allegory to which the key is lost, they serve well as a Rorschach test by which the viewer tests himself. The paintings emerge from within the artist's intuition. Although their key may have been lost in the mists of ancient belief, long before Homer who sung of it, scholar Michael Grant, noted in Myths of the Greeks and Romans: "The mind delights in imagery for its own sake, and its imagery assumes such surprisingly similar forms that the world's folktales (as well as many myths) look like dialects of a single language." Carl G.Jung declared that the key is not lost. It resides a bit in each and every person.
Julie Heffernan received a BFA from the University of California in Santa Cruz, and her MFA from the Yale School of ArtIt, New Haven, Connecticutt. Her art has had numerous showings and wide-spread critical attention. Come and view Julie Heffernan's oils on canvas at the Peter Miller Gallery. There are delightful discoveries to be made. The visitor has the right and truthful key. "New Paintings by Julie Heffernan" is on exhibit until November 13, 1999.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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