Julie Heffernan’s (*1956 in Peoria, Illinois) paintings are so complex, both stylistically and in terms of content, that they continually surprise us. Although they in no way correspond to our conventions of realism, they are nevertheless familiar in an inexplicable way. Upon first glance the broad palette of colours, the spatial depth and the tremendous richness of detail are particularly striking. In their atmospheric, fantastic manner of representation the paintings appear playful and romantic. They recall the 16th century Weltlandschaften (in English literally ‘world landscapes’), in which imaginatively composed, idealistic landscapes served as an allegory for the whole universe. Thanks to a raised viewing angle, endless panoramas of mountains, sea, forests or rivers unfold. The masters of this precursor to classical landscape painting, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder or Albrecht Altdorfer, used the painting techniques of aerial perspective and tonal contrast to create vertiginous space as a metaphor for the unstable nature of existence. In the foregrounds of their paintings warm and dark tones dominate, while, with increased distance, cooler and lighter ones emerge. Heffernan works in a similar way in her monumental, staggeringly complex paintings, which are simultaneously portraits, still lifes and history paintings. Thus Baroque images of tables over abundantly filled with delicacies or lavishly detailed Rococo portrait and genre scenes come to mind.
Heffernan depicts in her paintings alternative habitats where human beings, often as personifications of herself, seek refuge from the catastrophic consequences of environmental damage, social ills, financial and political decisions or the global economy. The subject of the motives can never be comprehended with a short, superficial glance. Why is a woman working with a chainsaw on a massive raft (Self Portrait as Emergency Ship Wright) or another woman carrying stones under a thin canopy that supposedly offers protection from boulders raining down from the sky (Self Portrait with Sanctuary)? Only upon detailed observation does the potential of Heffernan’s fantastic surrealism reveal itself. Our careful, considered gaze corresponds to the artistic production process: Like a window, the initial idea reveals the vantage point for the artist’s new painting. Thus Heffernan uses Hurricane Sandy or the BP oil disaster ‘Deepwater Horizon’ as an impetus to paint a picture. This starting point may very well be discarded during the painting process, yet it helps to create the foundation for the whole world of the painting. After the primary motif has been decided upon, Heffernan begins to delve into deeper layers of her subject matter, over a period of several months. The artist stated that until a few years ago ideas used to come just before she fell asleep, as endless images passed through her mind. Film stills and diverse texts inspired her too. Today she says it is the work itself that speaks to her and offers stimulation.
Thus with a myriad of details she begins to bring life to her fantastic worlds. In doing so, the balance of the central figures or objects is always present: The microcosm never hinders the view of the macrocosm, and conversely the delicate details do not lose their significance. Her paintings function both close-up and at a distance and enable us to continually make new discoveries, even after prolonged viewing. In addition to the many small elements, it is the uncanny, tragic and suspenseful scenes acted out at different places within the painting that have a particular draw. These sub-plots give the work weight. They become the most rewarding elements of her paintings and tell the complete story. Heffernan uses the setting of a landscape or a huge room, as could be found in a baroque palace such as Versailles, to express her personal hopes and fears. For this reason the titles of her new paintings all begin with the word ‘Self Portrait…’. These are not portraits of the artist in the traditional sense – even when there is a certain resemblance to a repeatedly appearing woman with long, red hair. The painting shows us in its entirety the artist’s striking, internal world and becomes – in a wider sense – a self portrait. It is about her personal perception as a woman in this century, as a citizen of a globalised world, which she fears is on the brink of ecological collapse. Heffernan’s stories describe imaginary and real states that concern the whole of humanity and our planet. In their resounding expressiveness they speak to us like a warning. That which is shown might seem to lie in the past or a distance future, yet the reality of the depicted and suggested circumstances is evident and the content extremely topical.