Chicago

Julie Heffernan

Peter Miller Gallery

Julie Heffernan provides precisely the kind of thing one might expect from fin-de-millénnium painting (though it’s pretty rarely found): a mannered, even claustrophobic engagement with canonical Western art practice. In her canvases, though, the heart of that canon is subtly undercut and oddly deflated, producing neither parody nor homage but a new and fully realized incarnation of honored artistic territories. In her paintings, easily recognizable historical prototypes—in the recent show, they included the likes of Velázquez, Mantegna, Lorenzo Lotto, Dosso Dossi, and Piero di Cosimo—rise again, but twisted and rendered dumb.

Heffernan performs much of this coyly treasonous borrowing by determinedly assigning all pictorial authority to herself. The phrase “self-portrait” appears in the titles of six of the seven large canvases on view, and her own features and nude body—whether stylized, gender-bent, or rendered perversely infantile—are presented as the iconic and compositional center of each image. With eyes staring fixedly and directly at the viewer, her ubiquitous presence turns these paintings into an exotic theater of the multiplicity of self as seen through the history of art. When Heffernan titles a work Self-Portrait as Infanta Underwater (all works 1999), she pretty much means it, coiffing her hair like some Velázquez princess, standing nude and half submerged in a transparent pool set into a dark wood, awash with floating apples and aqueous undergrowth. This painting, like all her work, seems rampantly allegorical, but at the same time the artist does not appear overly concerned with whether the allegory is legible. The body of the protagonist is surrounded here, as in other works, by a riotous infinity of flora and fauna, which range from tense dogs and wriggly snakes to highly decorated garlands and symmetrical tropical landscapes. Yet Heffernan’s figures always remain impassive in the midst of such highly ordered and splendidly rendered chaos. They seem untouched by their environment, their “viewer-behold-me” rhetorical posture an end in itself.

In Self-Portrait as Infantas Holding Court Heffernan is shown in the guise of a nude child (though with the same curiously adult head with which Velázquez often provided his Infantas, as if their worldly station made childhood not credible) standing in the foreground of a landscape holding a baby. They are encircled by five dogs who seem to scamper about excitedly. Behind them is a great half-tropical, half-sylvan landscape, complete with a highly decorated floral bower that gives the setting a sense of serenity. Off to the sides, though, impossibly tiny nude figures (their absurd size made clear by comparison with the apples rendered nearby) shoot arrows at one another, the most overtly dissonant element within this realm of artifice.

The palpable sense of strangeness in Heffernan’s work seems to rest in some fundamental breakdown in the communicative abilities of art; the historical inventory is all there, all determinable and impressively realized, but the assemblage is askew enough to introduce doubt about its meanings. There is a curiously compelling aspect to her paintings, and it rests in the purposefully uneasy relation between how and what she has adapted and the clear contemporary implications of her insistent insertion of herself and her altered body into these images, no matter how historical their frame.

James Yood