Art-Rated’s Jonathan Beer and Lily Koto Olive had the chance to talk with artist Julie Heffernan about the new works in her latest solo show with P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York. ‘Sky is Falling’ opened on October 17 and features over 10 new paintings and her first large scale sculpture, done in collaboration with Virginia Wagner. Heffernan’s new works explore the impact of the disasters that seem to be recurring with increasing frequency and intensity. The impact is measured societally and psychologically in Heffernan’s paintings; the characters inhabiting are frequently seen trying to readjust to these unprecedented and grave situations and sometimes failing to do so. ‘Sky is Falling’ runs through November 16th.
Art-Rated: The characters that inhabit your paintings have multiplied in these recent pieces…do you consider these figures still to be reflections of self? And would you say that your using the motif of the self-portrait acts as an interface between the almost surrealist inner landscape and the events of the outside world?
Julie Heffernan: Yes, the figures (and everything else in the paintings for that matter) continue to make sense to me only when I think of them in the context of self-portraiture. Something about calling them that gives me permission to open up my brain and see what falls out of it, onto the canvas, and really own what comes out, believe in that world and invest in it.
AR: One of the new paintings on display at PPOW shows a crowd holding signage and heads towards a road sign that reads “dismay.” In the background a city seems to be on the brink of devastation. Buildings are inscribed with words such as “lies” etc. Can you elaborate on the intent of the symbology? It seems very political, and perhaps to do with Hurricane Sandy and the lack of transparency in our current government, but we would love to learn more.
JH: I think you’re talking about Self-Portrait as Hikers, but I’m loathe to translate my work, even for you! It’s much better when the viewer just takes it in and runs with it wherever their own brains take them. That said, yes all the paintings are very much about the fact that we’re on the brink of some very interesting, potentially scary times, and I’m trying to get ready in my own psyche for those changes that we will soon have to deal with. Hurricane Sandy was just the beginning. Prospect Park, after Sandy, looked devastated, like a wasteland, with trees fallen everywhere. Then, as if by magic, there they were the following week, stacked neatly in piles, as if by elves, and we were left with the sense that it all wasn’t so bad. Because there was a clean-up crew in place. Not so in Red Hook or the Rockaways! There, no manicuring crew was at the ready to hide the realities of that devastation.
Nature is powerful and unpredictable in a way that, when out of balance, is something distinctly to respect. I decided, in this body of work, to name names and point fingers, because painting is all I have to use as a placard to voice my concerns and fears. So I’m using it. I have names of Climate Change deniers carved into the painted tree trunks and on lists sitting on tables within the painted rooms. I want to carve in stone, as it were, the people responsible for continuing a climate of “wait and see.” It’s deeply wrong and the problem is so huge that it can only be changed by a vast network of powerful forces getting together to do it. No amount of riding my bike (instead of taking my car) or putting out my laundry to dry on a clothesline (instead of using the dryer–all of which I do), and the like, will make a difference until we have a vast systemic change in place to get rid of fossil fuels and other dirty energy sources.
AR: I have read that your experience being raised Catholic has influenced the way you approach imagery. The sensation and spiritual qualities of light is certainly a big part of your work. How do you feel growing up surrounded by such imagery has played into the creation of your visions?
JH: I feel tremendously lucky that I grew up with a sense of something huge and invisible all around me, that I could commune with, importune, pray to, all that. It was like being given an institutional invisible playmate- that was how I used the Saints and angels (not knowing any better at the time what those nasty priests were really up to)- they were there to wrap my imagination around, was my belief. And I might add, that growing up in the East Bay suburbs, with its soul-deadening tract homes and strip malls, religion was a source of awesomeness; it was the Surreal in the dull reality of 1970s post-industrial malaise. It was really the only interesting game in town, with my neighbors going off on Charismatic Renewal weekends to get baptized in a river and talk in tongues- how cool is that? (I tried it too and discovered that I had to fake it, so that was the beginning of the end.) I’m still grateful for all of that even though there are no longer any names attached to the hugeness. It matters not a bit to me that nothing is listening to all my gratefulness and prayers and desire to see something big and wondrous; it just feels good to look around for such things. Gratefulness is a good state of mind to maintain. There’s no rationality to it and who cares? As a kid, that rich roiling interior world was a great substrate to dream in, play off of, fill myself with a sense of meaningfulness through. It’s Art writ large.
AR: Can you tell us more about how you find imagery and if there are particular related processes that are important to you in the studio as you make your paintings?
JH: There’s always some inchoate image that starts me off and sets me in motion. I throw that onto the canvas and then start the seemingly endless process of responding, responding, and responding. The painting will speak to me at a point so long as I keep up the responding process, the yes/no of each stroke I add (or subtract), moving things around, wiping things out and adding more things, fitting the pieces together until the whole slowly comes into view. I follow its lead and run after it madly, like a lover.
AR: “Sky is Falling” features a remarkable tree sculpture complete with glowing crystals and architectural structures. It was very exciting to see so many magical nuances found in your paintings come to life in the piece. What made you jump to sculpture?
JH: Oh I’m so thrilled you want me to talk about our tree! It’s my first sculpture ever. (Somehow I got through my undergrad training NEVER taking a 3-D class, so I never made little tchotchkes with cotton wads like the rest of you.) It arose from walks in the park with Virginia Wagner, my former assistant, now partner in sculpture. I was telling her that I’ve always wanted to include a sitting and eating component in my shows – a giant gorgeous bed in the middle of the gallery with a gigantic pile of fruit on it that people could loll on and eat grapes upon.
So we looked for hummocks, full of stumps and bushes in the park during that walk that looked like something we might want to build, and gradually we settled on stumps. There were so many in the park at the time, after Sandy, but you couldn’t take them out of the park because they are all infected with Japanese beetles. So Virginia went up to CT and found the yellow birch you see now in the gallery, a victim of Sandy yes, but without the beetles. The piece started out as a vision of brokenness, logs with little rooms carved throughout it, as if by insects, that would lie around the gallery for sitting on. Soon however it became clear that it needed to be totemic, to stand tall, and that was when it came into clear focus, what it should become, as an extension of trees in my paintings. It was a blast to create, once we had it in focus.
AR: Has this new sculpture affected your view of painting as a whole? Are you encountering hurdles in going back and forth from making objects and images?
JH: Not a bit. I can’t think in terms of categories when I’m making work. I don’t think I’ll ever make a ‘sculpture’ in the formal sense of that word, of problematizing form. Again, it felt like a very direct extension of what I’ve been doing, only closer-up.
AR: What’s next for you?
JH: READING!!! I want to read for a month, at least. Then I might make a forest…
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s in New York. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, ArtWrit and for Art Observed.
Lily Koto Olive is a New York-based artist, writer and musician. She began to write critically about art in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for her MFA in Painting. She has exhibited her paintings at the Dumbo Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY, HERE Arts Center, Sloan Fine Arts and ISE Cultural Foundation in NYC and Marketplace Gallery in Albany, NY. Lily is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail.