Julie Heffernan

at Peter Miller Gallery, through April 20

Vera Rohm: Topography of Time

at Fassbender Gallery, through April 20

By Fred Camper

Julie Heffernan’s ten still lifes at Peter Miller are at once conventional and endearingly nutty. In Self Portrait With Other’s Attributes peaches are scattered about a table in front of a bowl of apples, and as in Heffernan’s other nine pieces, the surfaces of the fruit are skillfully painted, gentle and sensual. The composition as a whole is centered, balanced–it’s quite a traditional painting, except that Heffernan has inset small landscape vignettes on the fruit and the bowl, almost as if we’re looking into or through their surfaces. A bucolic view of two nudes by a pond amid the bowl’s mundane geometric design seems a window onto a fantasy world. One apple holds a many-breasted woman, and a peach frames a giraffe standing in front of an ordinary home.

When I first saw these paintings they seemed a bit silly, but then their multiple forms began to work together, as metaphors for different kinds of seeing. Hovering over the fruit are superimposed line drawings of figures–one pierced with spears and swords. These are hardly noticeable at first; suddenly focusing on them is like discovering an additional layer. Attached to the canvas of Self Portrait With Other’s Attributes are tiny swaths of fabric, each with a different printed label (“Shirt–St. Lucy,” “Blouse–St. Agnes”). None of these layers seems to have much to do with the others or with the fruit, yet Heffernan’s classical composition visually dominates and connects the parts. The other layers read like embellishments–or the artist’s commentary.

Heffernan writes that her paintings are in part “a reaction to the dryness and strategizing of art-making in the 70s. I wanted to paint my own raving, inappropriate world, the micro-narrative side of women’s experience.” Historically, she believes, the still life was “the humblest” form of painting: “Most of it,” she told me, “just didn’t have the stamp of male puissance.” But in some 17th-century traditions of still life painting, the bountiful food depicted is meant not only to give visual and sensual pleasure but to symbolize human achievement and mastery of nature. There’s an almost phallic quality to glowing paintings of overflowing gourds, their plenitude filling the eye with color and form. Heffernan, 39, is a New Yorker with two art degrees: she’s knowledgeable about past painting as well as current feminist theory and offers an implicit critique of the still life tradition. Her only modestly bounteous arrays of fruit lead not to the contemplation of plenty but to the highly idiosyncratic content of the smaller images. Rejecting the global statements and grand generalizations of mainstream “masterpieces,” Heffernan joins other feminist artists in conveying a more individual content.

Heffernan’s other paintings similarly engage the viewer in a complex perceptual process. The tactile, solid surfaces of the fruit deny entry even as the landscape scenes painted on some surfaces lead inward. External reality is intertwined with inwardness and fantasy, as vistas open up within these mundane pieces of fruit. “I wanted to make a kind of painting that would allow for potentially anything–I was using these paintings almost like diary pages,” Heffernan says. On one fruit in Self Portrait as Alien a woman stands in the door of a wilderness lakeside cabin, and a man outside who’s been fishing has a serpent’s body. Because the line drawings are harder to see–and because they’re often taken from science or science fiction books and are sometimes bizarre–they offer a surreal but more subliminal point of view.

Such works call for the viewer’s active participation. The small vignette views have “enough detail that you believe the image,” as Heffernan says, but are sparse enough to force the viewer to complete them. Most important, the paintings’ heterogeneity leads the viewer in many directions at once: these works never make fixed statements. The artist abjures the role of world creator, instead filling her work with multiple possibilities, all of them interesting, none of them “true.”

In this exhibit, every title includes the term “self-portrait”; perhaps Heffernan’s works are fragmented because of her diverse background. Raised Catholic, she recalls growing up with “this very dramatic chiaroscuro reproduction of Jesus. There was some soulfulness that seemed to invite a kind of inward look.” She speculates that “one of the reasons there are so many artists who were raised Catholic is that there’s a fostering of the internal life. You have saints and angels, and you start to make up very visual psychodramas.” She also cites the influence of the painter Henri Fantin-Latour, finding his flower paintings “ripe almost beyond the pale–about beauty and transgression at the same time.” She abandoned religion in her teens and began painting in her 20s; her pursuit of formal issues is coupled with an interest in developing her “mind’s-eye life.” Her paintings within paintings come mostly from the mental images she’s now able to evoke spontaneously.

The exhibit’s largest picture, Self Portrait as Side Show–the only one that isn’t filled with fruit–is the most revealing. A row of pears sits on a foreground table; behind is a large landscape that includes cavorting dogs and cows and is inset with self-portraits. Not only are they radically different from one another, most of them suggest a protean subject. In one case we see the artist with ten breasts; in another, “lotta woman,” she seems fattened by stretching; in “rubber woman” she pulls at her own cheek. In the center is a text describing a woman in an asylum who thinks she’s invisible. Heffernan offers the opposite of the artist as a stable, self-expressive personality imposing his vision on things: this artist almost vanishes before the world’s flood of images–she can think or become almost anything, and finds a place for all in her art.

Like Heffernan, the German artist Vera Rohm is having her first Chicago one-person show, at Fassbender. And in some overarching way the two shows are similar, though at first glance Röhm’s seven large works couldn’t seem more different: if Heffernan’s work is emotional and idiosyncratic, Rohm’s appears objective, almost documentary–even pedantic, as in the large floor installation Time-Fields. On each of 22 metal plates marked with grids sits a white pyramid and a black pyramid, the black one in varying forms and positions. In most of her other works Rohm joins several sharp-edged pieces of wood painted different shades of gray to represent objects and their shadows, which vary in intensity. Although Röhm says these are literal representations, it’s hard to distinguish the object from its shadow; these works seem instead to be about the idea of shadows.

Large wall pieces such as Shadow “315º” are elegant and seductive. Its gray and black triangles made me think of Ellsworth Kelly’s large paintings of only a few shapes. But where Kelly uses contrasting colors, so that the differentiation of his shapes seems absolute, Röhm’s shades of gray and interlocked shapes make the panels appear more connected: she substitutes for the declarative quality of Kelly’s work a feeling of contingency. Her shapes are versions of one another; the shadows they refer to are ephemeral; the titles suggest momentary positions of the sun.

Modesty, perhaps the most interesting and surely the most underreported trend in current art, takes many forms. Röhm’s works represent simply moments in time. And just as Heffernan’s paintings deny–even critique–the self-sufficient certitude of a traditional still life, so Rohm’s minimalist forms are tied to observed nature, not presented as absolute and independent truths. The artist is redefined, becoming less a conveyor of revelation, as in much of earlier art, than a mediator between nature and viewer.

Heffernan’s multiple visions find their parallel in Rohm’s 13 small wall pieces, Reliefs, almost all with a central black shape bordered left and right by others in shades of gray. This series seems based on different positions of the sun, but what the object represented by the black shapes looks like in three-dimensional space isn’t apparent. What’s clear is that no single arrangement of shadows is “truer” than any other. Like Heffernan’s still lifes, Rohm’s works explicitly ask the viewer to complete them; but instead of asking us to think about her dreams and our own, Rohm asks us to think about the transit of the sun across the sky.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Self Portrait as a Side Show” by Julie Heffernan.