Julie Heffernan’s Constructions of Self

Julie Heffernan, Self-portrait as Booty, 2007, oil on canvas, 68 1/2×65 inches

Julie Heffernan creates sensuous figurative paintings, like co-Yale MFAS, John Currin and Linda Yuskavage, but her luminous oils are patently unique among them and most working artists today. A Victorian impetus to conjoin, edging toward pastiche, creates artfully staged Surrealist environments. They avoid the mawkish or macabre by virtue of an evocative 17th century Baroque styling and the dignity with which she handles her primary subject, herself. Good construction is essential to the success of such works, built of disparate things suggesting disparate philosophies and ages. Yet the finished product is seamless, making it easy for the viewer to willfully suspend disbelief in the face of rampant artifice.

These paintings are not Baroque, but it might take a second glace for that to register. Heffernan uses the traditional materials of oil and canvas to create large format, complex compositions, usually featuring a central figure. The careful chiaroscuro, the naturalistic and lush depiction of trees, flora, and fauna, and the luminous palette speak of a prior age. A second glance reveals how implausible her works are, filled with surreal environments that might have sprung from the imagination of Bosch. Fecundity and excess, ordered by an emotional rather than logical sense, rule paintings that verge from the neo-Baroque to the neo-Decadent. These qualities are all present in Heffernan’s Self-portrait as Booty, where a pale version of the artist stands bare breasted amid a skirt of dead animals and apples while behind absurd bucolic scenes appear as if in trompe l’oil wallpaper. Her typical combination of nudity with traditional still life elements of fruit and dead animals suggest a vanitas gone wrong—where the enjoyment of the sensuous conflicts with the implicit moral. Such abundant life embraces the carnal, saying, effectively, “To hell with it. Carpe diem!”

Julie Heffernan, Self-portrait as Big World, 2008, oil on canvas, 65×68 inches

Process for Heffernan is an intuitive one that she referred to, in a 2002 interview, as image streaming. “Before I’m actually sleeping, as I relax and get out of the conscious mind, pictures will flood into my head, kind of like a movie,” she said. “It’s not like daydreaming or remembering. They’re spontaneous pictures that I just sit back and watch. And then I’ll fall asleep. When I wake up, it’s at that point where the images start to stream in, and out of those I’ll usually ‘see’ something.”

This suggests the highly personal and symbolic nature of her paintings, which may initially seem fantastical and disordered. Self for Heffernan, as exhibited in these self-portraits, is an inescapable consciousness, a Jungian exploration, and necessary act of construction. The logic of the paintings is emotional and personal, yet such logic is the only way a topiary sphere of rooms surrounded by a moat and wall and set in a forest such as Self-portrait as Big World could function as holistically as it does. The interior rooms may be visible, but they remain inscrutable.

Julie Heffernan, Self-portrait Sitting on a World, 2008, oil on canvas, 78×56 inches

There is always a woman at the center of Julie Heffernan’s paintings—herself. Heffernan’s bare breasted women, with peaceful expressions and straight backs, stare out with a self-possessed air. All of her works are titled self-portraits, even if they feature a floral-ball world on the canvas rather than a pale woman with red hair who resembles the artist. Heffernan’s different handling of herself suggests a mutability and control that is powerful, reversing the traditional status of subject—or woman—as something to be gazed upon with a calculated projection that stares back. In this respect she is much like noted photographer Cindy Sherman. The artists construct elaborate worlds and recast themselves in a series of impersonations at the center. Both question feminine constructs through the very act of re-imagining themselves.

This self-portraiture is repeated in many guises with elaborate tableaus that suggest an interrupted narrative, often invoking or toying with traditional representations of women in art. On their heads the figures may wear ridiculous things like balls of roses, or from their waists stem huge skirts of animals or turf with formal gardens rivaling Versailles. The triangular composition formed by these heavy skirts transforms the figure into a monumental anti-Madonna ala Raphael. Yet in Self-portrait Sitting on World her hand, lifted with fingers meeting, suggests the traditional gesture of Christ blessing the world. Rather than a crown of thorns, the figure is crowned, while the ball she sits on resembles thorns.

Julie Heffernan, Self-portrait as Great Scout Leader III, 2010, oil on canvas, 72×54 inches

The artist, through both her person and her highly personal symbolism, provides the subject of her own compositions and this has not changed because this new series, on view at PPOW Gallery April 27-June 5, 2010, features an adolescent male. The new group of paintings meditates on moving on in life, like a son is going away to college or a mother dying. Self-portrait as Great Scout Leader III, like others Great Scout Leader works that do not feature an adolescent male, is more a reincarnation of Heffernan than a portrait of her son. Her self-portraits have progressed through many forms: from houses, to chandeliers, to women who resemble herself, and finally to a young man who resembles her. Finding the real in her artful scenes is like trying to interpret dreams. Where is the truth in it? Plato said that “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history” and the same might be said of Heffernan’s paintings to reality.

View More Julie Heffernan here.

Linnea West writes about contemporary art, culture, and travel–all subjects she feels passionately about. She lives in New York City–except for those times when wanderlust gets the better of her. This happens often. Fortunately her laptop travels well. She is finishing her first novel.