“Sky is Falling,” a show of recent large-scale paintings by Julie Heffernan on view at the Crocker Art Museum, takes us into the realm of pop surrealism.
Heffernan, a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Yale University School of Art, has shown in numerous group exhibitions around the county, and her work has received attention in Artforum, Art in America, Art News and The New York Times. She shows regularly at the Catherine Clark Gallery in San Francisco.
Presenting herself and other images as self-portraits in various guises, she takes us into a fantasy realm resplendent with lush images of flora and fauna in fairy-tale settings. At first glance, images such as “Self-Portrait With Animal Skirt” remind you of Victorian fairy paintings.
Here she stands in a dark landscape wearing a skirt made of swans, geese, rabbits and other woodland creatures and a headdress of riotous blossoms, looking like a cross between Lady Gaga and Queen Mab.
While the upper portion of her body is nude, there is nothing prurient about the image, as is the case with “Self-Portrait as Waterers,” in which she represents herself as twins in a fruitful bower, bejeweled with beads and bearing water bags, one leaking, on their hips. (There is in this image an echo of John Currin’s early Cranach-like nudes, which have become increasingly pulchritudinous and tawdry.)
As in many of her more recent works, there are vague subtexts relating to environmental concerns.
“Self-Portrait With Falling Sky” is a signature image in which a woman is pelted with falling rocks, some resembling potatoes, others bejeweled. Among the boulders is an image of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha, destroyer of vanity, selfishness and pride. It is a cataclysmic scene that portends ecological disasters.
“Self-Portrait as Explosive” is also an apocalyptic scene that features an ornate, Baroque interior with chandeliers, and Old Master-ish paintings appear with a hanging net containing large rocks and small human figures. Included is a forest fire lookout tower that seems to allude to a lack of prevention or preparedness.
Netted bundles of stones and large fragments of Buddha statues also surround the figure in “Picking Up the Pieces.” Here she adds brightly colored ellipses and circles with enigmatic images enclosed, giving a more contemporary feeling to the piece than to most of her works, which draw on Renaissance and Baroque sources.
In “Self-Portrait as Broken Home,” she gives us a hivelike structure cut away like a doll’s house to reveal myriad rooms with disparate imagery. Here, the viewer becomes a voyeur peering in at dramas taking place in a fantastical edifice. Among the oddities included are a man with a flag, a shootout, a Christmas tree, a woman vacuuming and an artist working on an oversized portrait.
In “Self-Portrait of Boy With Growth,” she offers an adolescent male figure seated on a lion in front of a thicket of leaves and fruits, the whole backed by a Greek or Roman mosaic, derived perhaps from a mosaic floor in the “House of Dionysos” from the late 4th century B.C.E. in Macedonia.
Of “Self-Portrait in the Cross Hairs,” Heffernan states that the flower skirt may be about a “burgeoning sexuality,” the chandelier about a brain exploding, presumably with riotous imagery that springs from her fertile mind.
One pleasure of looking at these works is the inclusion of seemingly unrelated images in vignettes set into the landscapes, like the pouches of imagery in the 16th century Mannerist School of Fontainbleu paintings and prints. In “Self-Portrait as Waterers,” for example, there is an image of men shooting pistols. In “Self-Portrait as Talking Stones,” there is an image of the battleships Monitor and Merrimac.
Crocker curator Diana Daniels describes Heffernan’s style as “stream of consciousness painting,” which is as good a term as any for these self-involved narratives that bridge the gap between the Crocker’s early European paintings and contemporary art.