by Charles Donelan
The Independent, September 7, 2006
With their mostly vertical orientation, subterranean perspective, and exquisite composition, Mary Heebner's new semi-abstract paintings on paper are a brilliant criticism of landscape tradition. Heebner's recent trip to Patagonia, where she witnessed riverbanks encrusted with multiple strata of fossils, has precipitated in her a Thomas Hardy-esque epiphany in which the grand scale of geologic and evolutionary history sheds infinite light on the limitations of subjectivity.
In the artist's statement that accompanies the exhibition, Heebner connects her understanding of fossils to the complex afterlife of individual works of art, but the gesture of these paintings is even bigger than that. The conventions of landscape painting reinforce so many cultural assumptions about property and identity that they can seem aesthetically irrefutable, part of the “nature” they are understood to represent. Heebner's fascinating “counter-landscapes” sweep these old rules aside and make way for a new figural language capable of finding meaning underground as well as above.
On its own, Heebner’s palette of earth tones — umbers, ochres, and blacks—would be suggestive, but it is her drawing that makes this series so compelling. Taking another cue from fossils, Heebner registers many of her marks by scraping and erasure. Although some fossils still contain the preserved matter of the organisms that formed them, most are like shells, the dried remains of whatever surrounded the long-departed original. They are the physical shadows of creatures that vanished tens of thousands of years ago.
In the strata of Heebner’s new works, dhe used the other end of the paintbrush, or some other pointed object, to sketch the beautiful floral shapes she imagines existing beneath the surface of the earth. In the larger works on display—”La Ballena,” “Riverbed,” “Petrified Forest: Baguales,” “Sierra Las Cumbres,” “Cerro Dorotea,” and “Pangea” — the extraordinary surface and depth effects set off by her media, which include reflective dust and graphite, coalesce with carefully meditated representational passages to produce the sensation of looking through illuminated water toward glistening stone. “Riverbed,” for instance, shimmers with the concentric and undulating ripples of moving water. Even more astonishing things happen when Heebner plunges beneath the crust in search of figures within the lower strata. The bottom half of “Petrified Forest: Baguales” explodes in what look like subterranean starbursts.
This is a great show from one of Santa Barbara's most consistently inventive and lyrical artists. It's at once gentle and tough-minded, part of the landscape tradition and apart from it, standing off to one side, watching and wondering at what we, and the earth, have become.
— Charles Donelan
Josef Woodard's review on the Strata show for the Santa Barbara
See the work