Climapocalypse Now: Heffernan at the Catharine Clark Gallery

<i>Self Portrait as Root Canal</i>, 2016

Last November, on one of those perpetually cool yet cloudless Bay Area autumn afternoons, I had the good fortune of finding myself at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco's emerging DoReMi arts district (comprised of the Dogpatch, Potrero Hill, and Mission neighborhoods). The artist whose solo exhibition had drawn me there was Julie Heffernan, a “contemporary surrealist” painter whose work has been gaining traction in galleries across the world and garnering praise from numerous publications, including ArtforumArt in AmericaArtnews and The New York Times. From afar (via the screen), I had been instantly captivated by her sumptuous, imaginative landscapes; as a fan of the Fantasy genre across media, her work seemed to land neatly in my predilections, both aesthetically and philosophically. Up close, however, her paintings are even more symbolic, detailed and hyper-consciously rendered than the screen could convey—and far more critical than I’d expected.

<i>Camp Bedlam</i>, 2016

Entitled Waters Rise, the exhibition featured a selection of large-scale landscapes—some in the form of diptychs—that arguably edge closest to socially conscious Sci-Fi in terms of narrative, though palette-wise they’re much more luminous and whimsical than what we usually associate with that genre. The point, though, is that they don’t neatly fit into any category: they imagine a post-climate-change world that is neither utopian nor dystopian, but rather a more complex alternative. It’s a refreshing viewpoint: instead of a lose-lose battle against the inexorable changes happening to our ecosystem, Heffernan depicts a future in which both nature and humanity are forced to unleash their inherent creativity and resilience in order to survive. Hence, much of her work fuses the bucolic with the post-apocalyptic in ways that even I, as a connoisseur of future-fiction, haven’t seen before—not in fine art, nor film, nor literature. Heffernan blends the skill of an old master and a baroque sensibility with elements of what the Times called “postmodern pastiche” to create these tumultuous and cerebral manifestations of potential. It’s a new and frankly beautiful take on what the future could hold for us—and for the natural world. She explains:

I have to remember that people are generally inclined to do the right thing. There have been many points in history when chaos reigned—the Wild West, Nazi Germany—yet still instances of decency abounded. And when things start to go out of whack here, climate-wise, there will nevertheless be a point where we will have to seek equilibrium and figure out how to live together with some civility, and even in pursuit of beauty, in whatever form that takes. The fact is that nature will intervene in the face of any disaster—look what's happening with the Gowanus Canal, or even the Chernobyl site, and how nature is reclaiming them:nature does tend to find forms that are the stuff of beauty.So in my paintings, I'm imagining situations that are in some sense continuations of nature in its wildness and ripeness, and also in its weirdness, the way that it manifests designs with pattern and complexity. My point in these paintings is not to paint some kind of science fiction-y scenario, like in Mad Max, because I don't see the future that way. Trees will still grow and bear fruit even as they adapt to different climates, and I want to imagine my way into those kinds of scenarios, since I believe we have a choice about the kind of attitude we take into the future. People have always made things out of the raw materials of nature, and when you add in debris and urban refuse, you have some interesting components for building new structures… I don't think we should be afraid of the future, but take charge of what we've wrought with our over-consumption and waste. For that reason, I'm making work that doesn't wallow in the miserable future ahead of us, but instead looks at the future as a time when we will have to be resourceful and creative in order to face down the myriad challenges we certainly will encounter.

Beautiful though they are, these landscapes are not without the more disturbing, even macabre elements that one associates with post-apocalyptic hypotheticals. One thing that did not come through via the screen (but which I did notice while examining the paintings up close) was the consistent contrast between the picturesque nature of her landscapes when viewed as a whole and the more off-putting little scenes and details within. “I got interested in that kind of bifurcated or dual viewing experience early on,” she explains, “when I was painting large still-lifes with small images embedded in the fruit and throughout the scene. Those small pictures were the product of a mental process I started to notice about thirty years ago while I was living in Berlin and painting up a storm, called image streaming.” It began one day after a long painting session, when she began to see “a flood of images” streaming into her mind. Her fascination with these “internal pictures” became the mainstay of her work. She recognized them as parts of a greater whole, and much of the little details that we see as part of a whole in her paintings correspond to the mental imagery in the “whole” of her subconscious. Larger still-lifes provide a great way to capture that dynamic. “So that body of work got me engaged with the idea of pictures within pictures, and my paintings ever since have been about two (or more) kinds of imagery: one that is evident from a distance and another kind opening up to viewers when they get up close.” 

Indeed, up close, there’s so much “going on” inside her paintings that a viewer could stare at just one of them for an hour and still not absorb every little scene, every little Easter egg of meaning in the nooks and crannies. Among these is the range of activities that the groups of humans in her fantastical worlds engage in. However much of the “stuff of beauty” there might be, it apparently will neither conquer nor eliminate the more aggressive sides of human nature—and Heffernan recreates every possibility equally, and non-judgmentally: “[the idea of] ‘humans co-existing more harmoniously than we do now’ may happen in spots in my work, but I'm aiming for a range of behaviors and events. Some of the figures are sitting around but there are also figures surveilling each other, fighting, playing cards, fixing broken limbs, sitting around a campfire, and so on. The whole gamut.”

<i>Self Portrait as the Other Thief</i>, 2013

One of my favorite details is in Self Portrait as the Other Thief (2013), wherein a group of humans climbing a tree have fashioned kilt-like garments out of both natural and urban refuse—one wears a kilt of milk cartoons strung around his waist, one wears cans of Pepsi, one wears fruit, one wears bottles, one has fashioned a skirt out of dead birds. Is this a post-apocalyptic fashion statement? Or are these items that they may need to use, and this is actually an innovative method of carrying materials up the tree? This is the motivation that historian Rebecca Solnit—whom Julie Heffernan referenced explicitly in our email exchange—believes to be behind the earliest human tools. According to Solnit, perhaps they were not “the shaped stones that survived the millennia, but baskets, nets, and skin bags that didn’t. That is, perhaps the first augmentation human beings made was not for throwing across the distance or killing or breaking, but for gathering in and bringing it all home.”

Tree climbers in <i>Self Portrait as the Other Thief</i>, 2013

Much of these details are rife with such symbolic meaning, and I noticed a few elements that kept recurring across paintings. In that same one, what appears to be the Arc de Triomphe—a cultural monument of freedom and revolution—sits elevated on the platform among the treetops, broken in places but clearly recognizable. Famous buildings and wrecked signage make reappearances across her work: 

The ramshackle structures that I "build" in these spaces function like “gathering sacks,” as Rebecca Solnit [an American writer, historian, and activist] called them. My structures are equipped with a lot of niches, rooms or caves to act as repositories for those things we might need to keep, things symptomatic of the culture itself, where its gone wrong, and what we should remember about that, and where it has provided necessary things for us, and also should be remembered.  Those things that ignite a memory or fuse an identity I want to gather into these structures to act like mnemonic tools, like a poem.

Detail, <i>Self Portrait as Hiveminder</i>, 2016According to the exhibition press release, Heffernan’s paintings explicitly refer to sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch Vanitas paintings, “brought into a contemporary idiom.” From the Latin nounvanitas, meaning “emptiness” (the same root of the English word “vanity”), this genre of still-life painting grappled with the transience of life and the certainty of death, reflecting a growing cultural preoccupation with death at the time. Vanitas paintings often contained skulls, rotten fruit, and other symbols of decease and decay. Heffernan’s use of skeletons, birds of prey and disembodied body parts do instill a sense of morbidity and foreboding in the viewer, almost as if these paintings represent life-after-death; the symbolic “death” of culture as we know it when climate change morphs our ecosystem into new forms.  

Along with scavenger birds, dogs also seem to play a significant role across paintings, and when I asked her about what these creatures mean to her, Heffernan explained that she views both birds and dogs as representations of our more primal desires, as well as lenses with which to get outside of the trap of human perspective and view ourselves anew: 

Birds are transcendent creatures and dogs are companions—great metaphors for our longing both to be part of a pack as well as to transcend our earthly natures. So when the transcendent bird is compelled to devour flesh (even if it’s for useful reasons, as in Tibetan funerary practices high in the mountains where decomposition can't set in and the ground is too hard for burial) it makes you think about Bird in a different light; and when dogs are running amok and fighting each other for bones, it makes you think about your companion Dog in a different light.  Humans need to see themselves through other lenses because their own is so often skewed.

Dogs Heffernan Birds of Prey in <i>Self Portrait as Root Canal</i>, 2016

Heffernan is clearly as intellectual as she is skilled by hand. A graduate of the Yale School of Art’s MFA program in painting, she credits her master’s program with “engendering an atmosphere of deep criticality and learning how to see well—modeled by teachers and adopted by students. We learned to both trust our eyeballs and question everything that our eyeballs didn't trust.” Born in Peoria, Illinois but raised in the Bay Area, Heffernan received her BFA in Painting and Printmaking from the University of California before heading off to Yale. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

<i>Self Portrait as Hiveminder</i>, 2016

Oil is the deliberate medium for Heffernan’s hypothetical worlds, with all of its richness and complexity—and its tendency to assert itself; a medium-as-message: “there is a certain kind of expressive potential to oil paint, with all its material richness, that gives authority to the depicted subject. Whether it be Rembrandt painting his aging soul or DeKooning's woozy women, the paint itself creates a richness within the subject matter that redounds to its benefit, no matter how critically the artist might approach it….while I might want to tell the story of climate change and all the potential catastrophes that it will cause, in the mere act of constructing a painting with color and texture, I am engaging to a certain extent in constructive thinking—and that changes the content of the work.” 

When asked where she situates herself (or doesn’t) on the spectrum of realism to abstractionism to conceptual art, Heffernan had a reply as refreshing, intellectual and distinctive as her work itself: 

I don't cotton to distinctions between abstraction, realism and conceptual art, only between good art and bad. The abstract components in my work are as important if not more than the realistic elements, because the idea has to be rooted in the form. Giotto'sMassacre of the Innocentsis about the machine of authority that imposes its will on its subjects and those that get caught in the gears of that machine: the innocents. He is able to tell that highly conceptual story through the arrangement of abstract elements in his composition that spells out how power is structured—an inherently abstract and conceptual idea, tricked out by realism. Realism that isn’t rooted in abstraction falls into illustration, and abstraction that isn't rooted in a concept is decoration. And conceptual art that doesn't speak to the senses is the stuff of dry calculation.So all good art must contain all three components.

Amen. In the culture wars and beyond, it is artists like Heffernan who will lead us into a more blended, multifaceted future. I look forward to seeing where she takes us next. 

Heffernan, <i>Self Portrait Standing My Ground</i>, 2016

Waters Risewas on view at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco from November 5 through December 23, 2016. For more on Heffernan and her work, visit her website at