As with earlier bodies of work, Heffernan’s newest paintings depict rich visual narratives that reflect on the impact of art and social histories on our collective consciousness. Hotheads, however, also draws on the urgency of the #MeToo movement and the need to hold space for women’s voices. Heffernan notes that “in my latest paintings, I am interested in deciphering the language and sub-textual meaning of artworks that I have encountered throughout my career. In doing so, I want to better understand how I have been indelibly shaped through my own passive viewing of a lifetime’s worth of visual information – from classical works in the Western art historical cannon, to a myriad of commercial images, such as signage and news photos to film stills and advertisements.”
In Self-Portrait with Rescuer (2019), a woman holds two long scrolls that unfurl on the floor around her, the images on the scrolls twisting together like a double helix. The face of the scroll depicts fragmented moments from Old Master paintings, while the verso depicts excerpts from modern journalism, including imagery of war zones and visual accounts of human rights’ abuses. Some of the images are seductive and tender, while others are unsettling.
As Heffernan writes, at play here is “a double-sided story of history – from glorified tales of conquest (as with depictions of Manifest Destiny and sexual assault in Baroque and Renaissance painting) to glorification of trophy hunting and violence in mass media.” The two faces of the scroll reveal the disconnect between real-world abuses and canonical images that purport to tell deeper truths. As these fragmented images accumulate and blur into one another, their individual narratives become harder to decipher, a powerful metaphor for how the proliferation of media and images often inures their power.
While Heffernan’s paintings are deeply critical about master narratives, they also celebrate women-identified artists, activists, and cultural producers who are often under-recognized or who have been written out of popular discourse. In the foreground, Heffernan features heroic female figures who resemble and suvert the familiar nudes of Baroque and Renaissance portrait. As Heffernan poetically describes, “the nude central figure in my paintings is a nod to the trope of Woman as keeper of tradition, but she is not an idealized object of the gaze: she looks outward, confronting the viewer and inviting engagement in the events over which she presides.” Behind these figures, Heffernan depicts portrait walls of activists and cultural icons such as Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Joni Mitchell, and Judith Butler. In doing so, she pays tribute to their indelible contributions while also invoking and exploding the form of the history painting to create a new cultural narrative that honors these women.