New York

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Mad Queen, 2022, oil on canvas, 96 × 56".

Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Mad Queen, 2022, oil on canvas, 96 × 56".

Julie Heffernan

Julie Heffernan’s outing here, The swamps are pink with June,” featured a selection of figurative paintings. All of them were rather large, but one—Self-Portrait as Throne, 2022, which is six feet tall and five feet wide—was quite grand, as befits its subject: a rendering of the artist as some kind of nature goddess. We often saw Heffernan’s women, many of whom function as her avatars, posed like queens amid hallucinogenic arrangements of greenery and flowers. (The exhibition’s title was taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson, a fervent gardener who in her own otherworldly writing often discussed the plants she nurtured.) The artist’s scrupulously rendered florae usually form magnificent patterns that fan out like proud peacocks’ feathers, as was the case with Spill (The Fall), 2023, in which quivering red globules of organic matter surround the figure’s head. In other works, the plants seem to sprout from the subject’s body, Gaia-like, as we saw in Self-Portrait as Continental Divide, 2022. Throughout the show, Heffernan boldly declared what anthropologist Ashley Montagu called the natural superiority of women. (Psychoanalyst Karen Horney argued that men have womb as well as breast envy, however unconsciously, for they lack a woman’s ability to create and nourish life.)

To my mind, Heffernan presents herself in these works as Lucretius’s Venus Genetrix, a source of perpetual renewal and regeneration, rather than Botticelli’s sterile and oddly sexless Aphrodite (aka Venus). Heffernan supposedly alludes to all kinds of historically important women (such as Queen Victoria). But so many of her canvases call to mind Shakespeare’s mythical Titania, due to their fairy tale–like character and hypnotically conceived details, which are often reminiscent of Richard Dadd’s famous painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, 1855–64. One wondered if Dickinson’s line inspired Heffernan because it distills the creative process into a metaphor: The unconscious is a swamp, while the wildflowers (the “pink”) that grow out of it are the conscious. Pink is a symbol of femininity, more broadly of happiness, suggesting that Heffernan’s paintings are a celebration of joy and womanhood.

Heffernan relies on the creativity of the unconscious—what Freud called its “imaginativeness”—to idealize herself, rather than wait for society to respect her. She is in effect healing herself from the wounds our misogynistic culture has inflicted upon her. Her “Spill” paintings, 2022–, such as Spill (Ashdod) and Spill (Lotus Emergent), both 2022, seemed to be tributes to the power of ingenuity. According to the press release for the show, the artist was searching “for fresh energy in the studio” for the series, so she “began pouring paint onto canvas to begin each work,” producing moments that “captured by accident the same energy that [Heffernan] would so painstakingly try to render.” The artist’s wonderfully capricious handling of her chosen medium recalls the fecundity of Dickinson’s flourishing swamp. The painter uses a tried-and-true automatist (and modernist) method of making contact with the unconscious. The result felt like a healthy antithesis to Pollock’s flashy yet psychically sick approach to automatism—what critic Robert Coates described as “mere unorganized explosions of random energy,” which he ultimately found “meaningless.” Heffernan makes a kind of refined neo-traditionalist literary art, insistently naturalist, optimistic, and extravagantly baroque, suggesting that modernist abstraction has become a dead end, as the ongoing development of so much “zombie formalism” confirms.