Contributed by Margaret McCann / En masse in Hirschl & Adler’s brimming rooms, Julie Heffernan’s colorful, busy paintings overwhelm like a pride of peacocks. The title of her solo show, “The Swamps are Pink with June,” a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, evokes the hope nature can inspire. This plays out in iconography, a saturated palette, and the adoption of tree diagrams as compositional trellises, which poise the accretion of experience against spontaneous flowerings from the unconscious. In Spill (Thorn Apple), warm shapes resembling mineral slices spread flatly in all directions, and advance against cool green botanicals that carve out space, then retreat dimly into it. The lush tree – rooted in a woman reaching up, Eve-like, transfixed and curious – slides under her skirt like a giant serpent. Though surrealism largely pre-empts symbolic accountability, Heffernan’s aggrandizing women preside like the allegorical figure Fortitude (of the four cardinal virtues). In Raphael‘s version of courage, Michelangelo’s Moses was used to model her lower half. Heffernan dresses most of the figures in Leonardo’s Cloth Study of a Seated Figure.
In Self-Portrait as Throne, paint flows through sumptuous transparencies, a winning blue, and a cosmic view vying with that of the Hubble telescope. A Milky Way of jewelry, stars, coins, meteorites, or giant uncut gems flows down upon the lucky lady in her jubilant garden. Enthroned with a daring hairdo and flower scepter, arm akimbo, she’s self-satisfied but determined; the sky’s the limit. A single muddy ball has swept up even pretty creatures in the process of tidying up, and sits in the corner like a yarn bundle ready to be spun or a vanquished rock of Sisyphus. Unlike Giacometti’s time-stretching doubt regarding his labors, Heffernan wastes not – no fretting or chasing butterflies. Tiny counter-narratives may emerge like micro-aggressions from the auras of her alter-egos – moments of inspiration or misgiving, the collateral damage of an omnivorous creative process. But ultimately, each painting’s ornate form and complex content lucidly conspire in the expression of masterful accomplishment.
From a distance we marvel at Heffernan’s inventiveness and gumption, but lured closer, psychological secrets are proffered, ranging from celebration to foreboding. Some read like episodes from the seven deadly sins –babies cast from a basket, a girl with a Cerberus-like torso, a pile of intestines, someone lunging with a knife – yet they remain inscrutable. Disorienting with faux intimacy is just one tool in this painter’s amazing bag of tricks. Expert stagecraft keeps understanding at bay. Painterly light obscures detail and drives the eye onward through curving diagonals, always – as in a funhouse, smorgasbord, or shopping mall – towards more of more. Viewing Spill (Lotus Emergent), we may wonder how the audacious female in undress, powerful ladies blossoming above, and the lotus – Buddhist symbol and natural filter of heavy metals – relate: outgrowing swampy straits? Staring us down, she manipulates her tree of knowledge – held for ballast, to steady it or shake things loose, or like a magic wand, giant paintbrush, or third leg in proud display. Proclaiming the painter’s skill and ambition, her transformative abilities, and coy yet cocky pose, evoke Circe’s fearsome power.
Heffernan’s psychological version of push-pull is emboldened by recent experimentation with saturated color and poured paint. Large reds and yellows burst like molten fireworks from a detonated Rorschach in the striking Spill (Ashdod). First taken aback, the viewer is beckoned across the foreground towards a relaxed, delicately detailed figure whose spindly limbs spoof Mannerism. A closer look reveals lacy edges of the now domesticated splashes. Lush vegetation rendered with botanical specificity cushions her as pthalos cool the mood; she is oblivious or impervious to the volcano overhead. Points of light issuing from, or sucked into, a dark center like a feathered hat atop her head link to shades below and the void growing between her manspreading legs. Reminiscent of Michelangelo’s pyramidal Pieta, this lap is empty; birds have flown the coop. Painted in the waning of covid, this work was named after the ancient fortress city, punished for theft of the Ark of the Covenant with a plague – as pictured by Poussin. Flat reds above succumb to gravity, drip on her like blood, and pool spatially on the ground, but she gives nothing away. Posing a riddle from her spiderweb, we can lean in to fathom her expression – a blank, pitiless gaze.
Without a dominant figure, Spill (Climbers) plays out from a distance. Tiny figures aspire to major characters. Animals fight at the base of a fiery tree at the top of a hill. Young people climb over them with the relish of a Robert Frost poem, ignoring leaves turning from autumn to a nuclear orange. Perhaps fond memory has mixed with wildfires in Heffernan’s childhood California, envisioning our future planet. The contest between heavy, looming abstract cadmium masses, and weightless, cartoonish figures surviving but not thriving, is unsettlingly equal. We gawk at a gently sadistic spectacle that is both frightening and disconcertingly fun.
In the dazzling Spill (The Fall), the figure’s long locks, swung up and back, have burst into colorful biomorphic plumes that branch into filigreed splatters. She is dwarfed by the size of the theater; the cornucopian claim of female power and growth – from pelvis, seed pods, fruit, and greenery – encounters the uncontrollable, which even her cavalier pose in a larger pair of Leonardo’s pants can’t tame. Within cellular expansion we discern figures from the other side burning in hellfire and falling her way. The dwindling, Gothic-sized figure is part of a much larger picture. It brings to mind one of Italy’s best treasures, the Mannerist Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin in Parma, starring that uber-vehicle, Mary. Light, with Jesus its hovering usher, beams her up from below. Spanning the cupola overhead, the scene literally and figuratively recedes in space. Heffernan’s is a much smaller painting on a gallery wall, but its suggestions of shifting orientation – elevation, plane, ceiling painting – incites the revelatory. Flat pattern begets a deeper rococo, even sublime space. The painting faces us like a psychedelic, dimensional mandala. An ode to imagination, mindscape touches the heavens. Wouldn’t it be grand if the moment of death were this awesome?
Leonardo made plaster casts of clothed legs in order to study chiaroscuro on volume under different lighting. His synthesis of cohesive light and shadow and design hugely influenced Western painting, his sculptural illusionism helping formulate the grand manner. But his anatomical plasticity is less relevant to Heffernan’s strengths than is his excellence with light. The Tiepolo scale of The Fall’s protagonist, lost in rather than commanding space, makes this woman a more subtle conduit, partaking in a luminous wonder passed to the viewer. The painter’s wizardry approaches the poetic; we are led less than we discover. This exuberant show may not appeal if your aesthetic preference involves quiet, simplicity, impassive appraisal, skeptical remove, or empathic romanticism. But it awaits, intrusively inviting and ceaselessly animated. Heffernan’s guileful, splendid circuses seduce, entertain, and above all impress.
“Julie Heffernan: The Swamps are Pink with June,” Hirschl & Adler Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, New York, NY. Through March 17, 2023.
About the author: Painter and arts writer Margaret McCann teaches at the Art Students League.