Both a multi-faceted spin on the pervasive selfie and an erudite capsule of feminist history, Hunter Gatherer, Julie Heffernan’s epic show at P·P·O·W, her first in five years, is far too much to absorb in one viewing—or even a dozen. Typically, Heffernan’s painterly technique is classical, almost atavistic. In a series of nine extraordinarily detailed images, all completed in 2018, Heffernan creates a personal diary cum feminist manifesto with an overtly political content seemingly at odds with its self-consciously pretty form.
She also bombards both the viewer-and the painting’s subject–as usual, herself–with a plethora of images that affect each of us as individuals and all of us as a society, shaping both Heffernan’s own consciousness, and the collective unconscious at large. The paintings powerfully seize the moment: specifically the rise of the #Metoo movement that has dominated the last several years.
Depicting herself, nude, with flowing tresses, a la Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the artist has stripped herself of the ornate symbology of her earlier self-portraits: skirts of flora and fauna or fish and game; chandelier-festooned headdresses. Here she stands naked, armed with a suggestively testicular painter’s tool belt slung above her crotch; alternative genitalia.
It is difficult to single out a major defining image from the nearly dozen such canvases; each is replete with Torah-like two-sided scrolls and mini-portraits within the main portrait-backgrounds filled with multiple, framed images referencing both history and art history.
The painting that originated Heffernan’s use of the scroll is Self Portrait with Daughters. This visual homage to literary heroines features Heffernan center stage, the scroll covering most of her nudity. Surrounding her are portraits of George Sand, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, and for currency, contemporary powerhouses Meryl Streep, Carolee Schneemann, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Gloria Steinem. Ruben’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus is directly behind her. Here Heffernan has the male would-be abductor on horseback as a naked woman who is aiding the daughters’ escape.
Self-Portrait with Rescuers, one of the more frontal iterations, is filled with images of heroes attempting to save the environment. In it, Heffernan is placed before an edited version of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark. Other art historical images include an edited version of the work from which the painting takes its title, Fritz Zuber Buhler’s Heroic Rescue. The piece is also populated with portraits of half-a-dozen environmental heroines, including Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Julia Butterfly Hill, who saved a California redwood by living in it for nearly two years, and Lois Gibbs, who worked to salvage the Love Canal crisis. The scroll, which gracefully veils Heffernan’s crotch and cascades onto the floor, contains repurposed art-historical images, such as Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, and Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon crossing the Alps.
While the various images of the scroll–which in itself is an ambitious show of miniatures–are usually used to drape the subject, it appears in some of the paintings as a giant ball: In Self-Portrait with Lock, for instance, it tellingly rests in Heffernan’s lap. Presciently, given that it was executed long before the Kavanaugh hearings, the painting features an image of Anita Hill with Senate Judiciary Committee Members Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy. Also shown is Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and Executive Director of the White House Council on Woman and Girls. The scroll includes Fragonard’s portrayal of rape, The Lock, and two versions of The Rape of Proserpine, one by Jean-Francis de Troy and one by Christopher Schwartz. In all three the artist has rendered the male violence impotent.
In another, entitled Self Portrait with Anna, Kathe, Liz and Barbara, (whose portraits loom behind her) the balled-up scroll sits atop Heffernan’s head like a majestic turban. In its brazen power grab of not only the male gaze, but male art history and male politics, Hunter Gatherer (which, in effect, reverses those roles) might more aptly have been called “Female Empowerment.”
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).