Mary Beth Heffernan

Portrait | About | C.O.L.A. Project | Past Projects

Mary Beth Heffernan may have established a reputation as a photographer, but her métier is not “photography” as such. Indeed, her praxis is rooted not in photography but in epistemology—the knowledge of knowledge. Heffernan is fascinated by things and by the human drive(s) to make and to know things—ultimately, as she puts it, “what is at stake when meaning falls through the cracks” or “fails to be translated from one register to another.” Her investigation of how objects and images mean leads her to refashion them as often as to document them—and often to document them in the very act of refashioning. If anything, she reverses the reflexive dynamic of current photographic practice: instead of fetishizing the photograph, she photographs—and even fabricates—the fetish.

Heffernan is aware at all times of the tensions that maintain between language and substance, especially when that substance takes the form of a “living object”—a device, a utensil, a material associated with clothing or nourishment, a practice that centers on or otherwise affects the human body, or at least the senses. “Knives are a lot like words,” she says about an especially ambitious project built around the historical production of kitchen knives. Her decision to inscribe words and phrases onto salvaged knife forms thus makes almost tautological sense, as a kind of conceptualism made solid (not to mention implicitly performative).

Heffernan revels in the revelation of conundra, the upending—if not the undermining—of comprehension. She concentrates on empirical evidence, methodically investigating and even dissecting it to the point where it stands exposed as metaphorical construct. There is no Cartesian separation of thing from meaning; a thing embodies its meaning and ultimately, given the way our minds work, even conflates with our word(s) for it. And in the exposure of that conflation Heffernan shows not only that things resist their rubrics but also that we understand them by their very ability to occupy more than their obvious classifications.

The elision between clothing and skin as Heffernan displays it, for instance, regards clothing both as an amplification of skin’s protective function and as a bridge between human and animal sensation, between nature and culture (as embodied in clothing styles, fashion and folk alike). In assuming the shape of the human hand, gloves become imbued not just with “handness” per se but with human personality as well— and, at the same time, with pawlike animality. Her deconstruction of the act of knitting and of the clothing-objects that result segues into narrative association through crudely “pixelized” imagery coaxed out of found knitwear. Here the artist embeds information in a medium whose informational status she has already revealed— unraveled as it were.

In her installation Smile, reconfigured for the C.O.L.A. show, Heffernan reverses that process, “objectifying” language so that its verbal meaning—its supposed raison d’être—is placed in dissonant relationship with its physical/visual presence, making us more aware of linguistic function and the vagaries of notation. Knowledge infects knowledge; epistemology borders on epidemiology. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Mary Beth Heffernan demonstrates that a little more is a little more dangerous—in a strange new way.
— Peter Frank