Heather Bennett, “The Loved One for JLM” (2017) (all images courtesy Bruno David Gallery)

Best known for her photographic interventions into the narrative bandwidth of female subjectivity, performing visually à la Hannah Wilke or Cindy Sherman, artist Heather Bennett has long plumbed the depths of bodily perceptions — the object looked at slyly looking, the subject desiring to be desired.

That such simultaneity defines the vagaries of daily life is hardly new; nor is the idea that women might be particularly well schooled — via the open-admission reality of sexism — to navigate these dualities in creative ways. In Bennett’s work, this creativity is anchored by a feminist sensibility laced with wry humor. It is serious but not self-serious; it means without bluntly moralizing.

In her latest series, Photos of Gifts, on view at Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis through November 11, Bennett removes herself as a visible player in order to toy with questions of frivolity, adornment, and the rituals of consumption. Each expansive print hints at the artist’s presence in depicting presents she has hand-wrapped in magazine ads. Titled diaristically, according to the item wrapped and its lucky recipient — a Mary Gaitskill book for “JLM,” a pair of tuxedo ruffles for “Correos”— the collection reads as both irreverent and deeply personal, each present staged as fleeting surface pleasure rendered permanent on fiber rag paper.

And that’s where shit gets weird (if delightfully so). Through selective focus and a distorted scale between gift and domestic backdrop, visual planes collide and coalesce, upending the conventions of high-end fashion spreads to expose how easily model and consumer good can be instantly fetishized. Are we gazing at a real-life green-eyed woman, her dark mouth lacquered behind an emerald sash? Or at her flattened visage against a box? And — perhaps most troublingly — does the difference even make a difference in how we respond? Bennett’s gifts may be (literally) tied up with a pretty bow, but her feminist inclinations are anything but.

“I’m coming at feminism from a different angle here than in my earlier projects,” she explained as we toured the gallery. “It’s a bit more subtle — about the objecthood of the photograph in an ironic sense. Through illusion, I’m bringing promises of possible promises of a narrative — then purposefully breaking them.”

In such deception lies the humor, a droll distraction from what is at stake that nonetheless forces one to reckon with it. In “Hey Baby Book for Catalina O.” (2015), the gift box appears upon a white leather skirt — mirroring the red ones the models wear in the spread festooning the foreground. From a distance, the leather creases resemble storm clouds looming above the cumulus in the fashion fantasy. As the blonde duo aloofly ponders the perfect sky above them, the viewer gets a glimpse of something darker, a riposte to bland escapism. “Humor is such a powerful tool, but one you have to wield very carefully,” says Bennett. “For me, it’s always there, even though I’d never call my work laugh-out-loud funny. Especially navigating women’s images and media, humor informs how we deal with it on a daily basis.”

Heather Bennett, “Hey Baby Book for Catalina M” (2015)

Compared to Bennett’s elaborate filmic narrative projects — many of which boast production credits of their own—Photos of Gifts follows a simpler, more spontaneous process. “I’m taking something that seems frivolous and feminine and exploding it and making it something new,” says the artist of her penchant for gift-wrapping. Shot intuitively at her home once a gift is ready and ribboned, each cumulatively chronicles a life of giving while probing gendered cultural assumptions.

Further wrapping the frames to match the jewel tones of each image, Bennett conflates the performance of femininity with the pretext of art itself. “I’m very much a person who loves contradiction,” she said. “My primping of the art object — making this overtly beautiful object that you desire — is a method of being critical of that even though the objects are that.”

Heather Bennett, “BFG for Mark et al” (2016)

Propped up against cushions, textiles, or articles of clothing partially or wholly obscured, each gift is granted a dreamy, if vaguely sinister, boudoir quality. In “BFG for Marc Et-al” (2016), a reddish-peach swatch at first resembles a sepia smudge or blood stain, but up close becomes the upper arm of a woman swathed in frilly cream chiffon. Her head cut off by the upper edge of the gift box, the model fades into the background’s shaggy white fringe. Death by throw pillow? A bridal bust gone bust? The joke, it seems, isn’t only on us.

“Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong?” Chris Kraus asked in her cult-classic, newly popular novel I Love Dick. Bennett’s take on feminism, fetishism, and the crankbait of beauty enthralls in part because she’s willing to take that risk — the lines between sincerity and parody as blurry as a model’s airbrushed brow, and the stakes as timely — and intimate — as a gift worth wrapping and giving way.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...