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October 10 - November 17, 2007 at Pasadena City College Art Gallery, Pasadena

by Margarita Nieto

Organized and shown in conjunction with the citywide Pasadena Festival of Art and Ideas,  “The Soldier’s Skin: An Endless Edition” reveals new material in Mary Beth Heffernan’s photographic exploration of the body. This Festival, the fourth in which all the city’s public spaces, including museums, the symphony, theatre, dance and visual art institutions participate, affords the artist an opportunity to again explore the dialogue between the body as identity and as image. Here, Heffernan creates a dialogue between the viewer and the tattoo images that returning marines have inscribed on their bodies to commemorate their fallen friends. The tattoos’ familiar, iconic and yes, kitschy images are printed in stacks and made available to all, allowing for an interaction between them and the viewer.

Since the “Becoming” series of photographs (1993-94) images of surgically constructed sculptures of turkey skin and viscera which in their 5 by 7 inch format were identical to nineteenth century medical photographs), Heffernan continued this exploration of the body with “Replete” (1995-1999), informed by the Scottish anatomist William Hunter’s medical engravings of a pregnant corpse, again utilizing the turkey/viscera constructions).  In these earlier series, Heffernan drew analogies between the object/body and the curvilinear drapery of the Baroque.  In turn, formed and informed by her Catholic upbringing, “Band” (1995) consisted of photographs focusing on Jesus Christ’s cut foreskin, the physical representation of  “the word made flesh.” The follow-up to this concept was “Corpo Inductum” (2001, a creation of Christ’s loincloths again fabricated out of skin and meat and again photographed in the manner of medical photography).  The interpolation of the visual language of Renaissance and Baroque crucifixions enhanced and contradicted the “reality” of the object, the loincloth, the cloth covering the forbidden for Christ, his sexual organ.

This current exhibition is a larger and more complete version of her 2006 show ”Give and Take Some Tokens,” organized for the High Desert Test Sites Festival. In “Soldier’s Skin: An Endless Edition” we confront “Skin.” Living skin; the arm or the back of a young man. Reddened skin still healing from a tattoo burn. Keven Jordan’s arm, still bumpy and red, a tattooed cross etched with a cross, and dangling from the cross, the dog tags and the names of soldiers who have died in the current war in Iraq.  They were friends, companions of Jordan: Clay, Macelveen, Martinez, Houman, Huhn, and above the cross the words, “Lost but never forgotten.”

"Keven Jordan," 2006, photograph.

"Joshua Hall," 2006, photograph.

"Jesse Markel," 2006, photograph.

"Matt Schumaker," 2006, photograph.

On Matt Schumacher’s freckled arm, tiny strands of body hair stand out against another cross with an eagle at the top, and the words “God,”  “Country,” and “Corps” flank either side. The phrase “Always faithful” intertwines along the length of the cross. In other images, the figure of a soldier stands looking across a graveyard of crosses.  We see the common symbol of a fallen brother, his gun with the helmet on the cross, his empty boots by the side.  There is the familiar image of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, only in this case the background includes faded blood streaks on a firm young arm.

Sweeping away all the artifice of the art gallery, including the frames, the attention to size and format, Hefferman has created an exhibition-in-process, one in which the images cull and jolt a response.  For these are offered as multiples, piled in stacks on the gallery floor, endless copies for us to pick and take with us so as to be aware of the living physical and emotional pain that these marks represent.
Reminding us as well of tattooing’s ancient history as an identity, as a badge of honor, as a military emblem, she also hits on its current trendiness: The snake on the ankle, the lover’s name on an inscribed heart, the sexy image on the lower back. Simultaneously, we also can become aware of how small those sacrificial tributes seem in relation to these new relics of a discretionary war.
Heffernan’s act of recording these images, of bringing them to our awareness making them freely available, may be read as a homage, or as a protest, or simply as one more documentation.  But at a moment when a generation has been jolted into serving and perhaps dying or returning maimed for life, her effort is a resounding reminder of the life and death power of representation. What matters in these common, iconic, quasi-kitschy images is the pain and love embodied by the bearer, and the intent of keeping alive the memory of the fallen.