Taxonomy of the damned

The weird mutant animal creations of Davis sculptor Gerald Heffernon provide a swell summer diversion at the Crocker

Gerald Heffernon, “Rabbinoid,” mixed media. Lewis Carroll would approve.

Gerald Heffernon, “Rabbinoid,” mixed media. Lewis Carroll would approve.

Just over the railroad tracks, in the heart of a little town named Dixon, sits an unobtrusive metal building. But it’s not just any building. It houses artists’ studios, eight to be exact.

Gerald Heffernon’s studio in that building crosses the line, however, morphing into a world that can only be called a laboratory. There, Heffernon crafts a futuristic species that portends his vision of a world reeling from the decades-long overdose of chemicals and wanton and unchecked gene splicing. Heffernon’s life-sized creatures can evoke myriad responses: curiosity, revulsion and amusement—enough, in fact, to warrant a one-man exhibition currently displayed at the Crocker Art Museum.

At first glance, Heffernon’s “Four-eyed Sighthound” is a well-crafted pooch of excelsior, wire, wood, fake fur and pigments. But wait: Something’s not quite right and merits a double take. This hound has two sets of eyes, so perfectly placed that you want to rub your eyes to clear your own double vision, as the relaxed dog casts a double backward glance.

And with every piece, Heffernon has penned a tale to detail just how these creatures came to be and what special powers they possess. This “run-of-the-mill dog manufactured in a test tube” for instance, also has—pardon the pun—foresight. In Heffernon’s world, these dogs are clairvoyant.

The “Land Eagle” is a bald eagle that landed on an Alaskan toxic dumpsite, scavenging “half-dead prey among the medical waste, hormones, household chemicals and disposable diapers. The diet didn’t kill it, but changed it,” shortening its wings and elongating its legs and neck. Now Alaska opens its dumpsites as tourist attractions where people can gawk at these birds.

This is a world where Chinook salmon spawned in Putah Creek, near “Vasid,” California. “Fishnoid” is a beautiful, iridescent salmon, but its humanistic muscular legs up the creep factor exponentially. It seems that DNA taken from salmon with abnormal gametes was delivered accidentally to a lab studying limb regeneration. The materials were shared with another lab researching primate reproduction. Oh, and fishnoids are not good to eat.

Heffernon may create in Dixon, but he lives in Davis, where he’s surrounded by University of California research labs. As a kid, animals were a big part of Heffernon’s life. Just a block away from his Chicago-suburb home in Riverside, Ill., was the back entrance to the Brookfield Zoo, then the largest zoo in the country.

“The large and exotic animals had a big influence on my art-making psyche,” Heffernon admitted.

During his work as an art major who graduated from the University of Illinois in 1969, Heffernon found another pull: writing and literature. So, it’s an entertaining finish to each of Heffernon’s pieces to read of the artist’s sci-fi flight into the future, where his creatures were born. Readers have to feel that sense of pleasure Heffernon gets when he injects familiar landmarks into his scenarios, or toys with wordplay (Vasid equals Davis) in his creations’ written biographies.

Although you might expect it, there is no flash of madness gleaming in his eyes like with Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein. There was just a calm but amused glint lighting his bespectacled eyes as he sat in his studio one warm afternoon, talking about his own artistic evolution, as his dogs Bella, a beagle-shepherd mix, and Dingo, a multi-breed, relaxed underfoot. Heffernon’s always been a dog lover.

“My grandmother gave me a dog-breed book when I was a kid, and I always read it—still. It’s dog-eared,” the salt-and-pepper-haired, jean-clad baby boomer deadpanned. “I always drew dogs on paper, in the sandbox or sculpted them in oil clay.” Heffernon, who supports his other creative endeavors with a successful track record of creating work for public art commissions, had just that afternoon come from the installation of “Trainhounds” at the Zinfandel Drive light-rail station in Rancho Cordova. Bella served as his model.

Gerald Heffernon, “Three-eyed Xerxes,” mixed media. Heerre, kitty kitty!

Heffernon’s studio is amazingly organized—like a laboratory, with tools hung neatly on the wall and a clock with animals on it. A wry sense of barnyard humor pervades his work no matter the medium, evidenced by some of his large paintings that fill the empty wall space. On one canvas, Heffernon’s rendition of the Flemish master Jan Van Eyck’s 15th-century painting of “Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride” is a remarkable copy, except Heffernon has replaced the groom with a succulent pig, resplendent with wings.

But his outrage at world events finds a voice in his work, too. Another painting, intense with smoke and flames and images of gas masks, is titled “Shock and Awe,” in reaction to last year’s events in Iraq.

Opposite the paintings, an old antique trunk spilled over with faux fur fabrics, awaiting transformation in his talented hands. Indeed, Heffernon’s work is highly executed, so finely crafted that people mistake it for taxidermy. His art education started early. He’s had many years to hone his technique.

“In high school, I did the whole spectrum: commercial art, painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics and art history,” he recalled. “After graduation from college in Michigan, you could get a teaching job without a credential, so I taught middle school for a while, then got a job working with children who had disabilities. I worked with them for 48 hours, from Saturday to Monday straight, and then had the rest of the week to do art. Those were the days when you could rent a house for $100,” he said, laughing.

“Working with those kids helped me get past typical ideas of beauty, away from conventional definitions. It even inspired me to make a film about spiders. I made a beautiful sculpted environment for my spider movie,” he recalled with a laugh. “I used my Super-8 movie camera with a fisheye lens. The spiders looked elegant.”

Heffernon picked the brain of a Dodgeville, Wis., engineer who had worked for NASA in the 1950s. With his help, Heffernon prettied up some solar panels to construct a “Lily Pad” photovoltaic fountain that won a 1980 award from the Wisconsin Arts Board. “Working with him, I got the idea of creating a controlled environment, with guys in white lab coats coming to the lab in the middle of the night,” Heffernon explained. Then he got up to open a little white box adorned with those magical solar panels. Inside was an egg of sorts, which moved when directed by that solar energy. The more you talk to Heffernon, the more you realize that both sides of his brain are highly developed.

When life and love brought Heffernon out west in the mid-1980s, where he settled in Davis, his creative juices were sparked in a different direction by the area’s research environment. The writer emerged.

With a little pleading and cajoling, Heffernon convinced Davis gallery owner John Natsoulas to venture into the publishing biz and, in 1991, The Unexpurgated Book of Dogs was published. Heffernon followed with The Unexpurgated Book of Cats in 2003. Both tomes feature his sci-fi bent, with mutated cats and dogs gracing the pages, and with personal tales penned by Heffernon to reveal their DNA gone astray.

“My goal,” he said firmly, “is to do a book that combines writing and visuals that will be conceptual art, not a catalog on ‘anthropoctcpypto’ zoology that I invent, as much in writing as well in sculpture. It will be zoology influenced, but created by the hand of man, with creatures that may or may not exist,” he concluded mysteriously.

But right now, the real power exudes from the creatures themselves. Walking around the exhibition at the Crocker, it’s hard not to feel their presence. While admiring “Louis Kanz Lion,” with his fine floral-tapestry coat and wooden claw feet, it feels like someone’s looking over your shoulder, hovering. And someone is.

It’s Heffernon’s “Rabbinoid, Male” holding up the wall, clad in vest, shorts and bowtie—a life-sized kind of jack rabbit, casually surveying the room like a dandy sizing up the hares in an uptown (meat market) bar. It’s a bit eerie. But he’s just checking out the “Rabbinoid, Female.” The rabbinoids grew out of rabbit eggs that had been injected with human DNA. In Heffernon’s world, well-established communities of rabbinoids exist on four continents.

“The Rabbinoids took a couple of months to make. I just kept working on them. I’d pull off a limb and change it. I have to live with them awhile before I’m happy with them and release them into the wilderness,” he said, laughing.

“I have image storms,” Heffernon continued, when quizzed about his inspiration. “I like to try everything. I’m not actively aware of the images and stuff that come out of me. I don’t have a real process—I don’t even like to write stuff down. I want to see if there’s a force in the work. I get into making them on a deeper level. They must have some deep psychological roots to them.

“People either love them or hate them,” Heffernon concluded. “But they sell pretty regularly. I even gave one as a wedding gift. I guess people must like them. I had some stored at a friend’s house, and one of them did get stolen—a green sphinx.”