Small but expansive show find its
sense of place
by Josef Woodard
Santa Barbara News-Press, August 1, 2003
It takes a heap of hyphens to get at the essence of Mary Heebner. A collagist-painter-poet-journalist-journal keeper-itinerant, Heebner has been following a restless heart and skillfully avoiding easy categorization throughout the many years of her career(s).
One of the surprising, tidy feats of her current exhibition at the College of Creative Studies gallery, "A Sense of Place," is the coherent means by which it taps into most of her endeavors. It celebrates the external world in its infinite variety, and her own multidirectional pathway through it.
This is an inherently modestly-scaled show, limited by the gallery's dimensions, and Heebner wisely limits the expanse of its contents, for the sake of focus. Rather than cull bits and pieces from her art and travels, she presents reportage and artistic projects from three distinct locales: the caves of Lascaux and Rouffignac, France; from Ayutthaya, Thailand, whose damaged religious icons show the effect of Burmese brutality hundreds of years ago; and the sprawling spaces of the unpeopled American West. Larger works are mixed with small paintings and book projects, reflecting the artist's fluid approach to media.
Each segment in the exhibition is a self-sustaining story unto itself, and the combined force of the three distinctive "chapters" gain energy from the cumulative whole. As she writes in a statement, travel "makes me take risks, reveals and undermines my prejudices, and stretches my conceptions about art." That notion of the symbiotic relationship of art and traveling, with compassion and sense abuzz, may be the show's leitmotif.
In 1997, Heebner had a rare opportunity to be one of a few visitors invited inside the ancient Lascaux caves, officially closed to the public since 1963. She interpreted the visions of the cave's famed, prehistoric paintings in a four-panel work called "Lascaux: Gold to Airy thinness beat ... ," a series of ochre pigment drawings which personalize Heebner's close encounter with pre-history. With this piece, a hint of the ancient reality contained in the cave painting is somehow seamlessly merged with a post-20th century abstract sensibility.
Similar epoch-leaping, and culture-leaping, is at the core of her installation piece along the gallery's back wall, "Bodhisattvas at Ayutthaya." Here, Heebner is interpreting and processing a bittersweet reality: Rampaging Burmese in the 17th century attacked the village and, in a final insult, decapitated its Buddhist deities. And yet the sacred sculptures remain, a testament to divine empowerment in the face of tragedy and defacement. Heebner depicts these defaced Bodhisattvas in photos printed on sheer paper scrolls, and places a barrier of bricks and photographs on the floor, turning the sum effect into a shrine to spiritual resiliency.
In the large, composite piece called "Bright Angel: The Grand Canyon," Heebner's residual impulses as a collagist and texturalist bubble up to the surface. A neat yet intuitively rugged assembly of modules and recurring shapes conspires toward a construction of nine panels. Centering this series of images — which range from natural reflections to abstract figments of an active visual imagination — are fragments of her poetic accounts of her canyon visit. In a final, ironic wink, she refers to the tough interface of poetic attitudes and physical rigors of traveling, "viewed as a place to get across, it was hell." But a good hell, with assorted rewards in the traversing.
For Heebner, the "sense of place" is a state of mind as well as a stop along a continuing journey-in-progress.
Lascaux: Gold to Airy Thinness Beat, Ochre paintings,
with map of cave of Lascaux projected onto gallery floor with light