Charline Von Heyl


Institute of Contemporary Art

By Daniel Gerwin 

Through February 19, 2012

Sheila Hicks is a tough act to follow: this past summer at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania, Hicks lit up the cavernous first floor with intense color and radical shifts in scale, from tiny fiber sketches to enormous tentacles pouring down from the ceiling and across the floor.  Amazingly, the paintings of Charline von Heyl are more than able to hold their own.  Like Hicks, von Heyl’s forms are unpredictable; her color animated and intense.  The two artists are linked by a  common understanding that pleasure and conceptual depth are mutually sustaining.

On October 5th at an ICA evening salon, the painter Dona Nelson applied observations she made on the John Cassavetes movie, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, to characterize von Heyl’s work:

Convoluted narrative – it’s absurd, but never funny. It’s riveting, but not entertaining. The unpredictable rhythms of the dialogue constantly make you aware of the film as a construct.  On the other hand, it seems very personal and very emotional in an unfamiliar way – you can never really identify the emotions, but it’s nonetheless very emotional.

Painting is experiencing a surge of interest in abstraction and formalism, and von Heyl’s work is fully engaged with these concerns.  In the 21st century, however, abstraction is a double-edged sword, and the blade’s deadly side is the replacement of abstract thinking with abstraction as a genre.  When abstraction becomes genre painting that recycles tropes from the past century, it’s reduced to a worn-out language of little interest.  Von Heyl demonstrates what can be done using the other edge of the sword, the lively one that cuts a path forward.

Von Heyl’s canvases are generally about seven feet tall and six feet wide, on the scale of the human body.  Neither monumental nor intimate, they are not trying to impress or seduce: they simply stand ready to take on all comers.  Her paintings ricochet off a variety of visual vocabularies: some are biomorphic (Nuit de Paris, 2008; Phoenix, 2008), some geometric (Time Waiting, 2010), some use a frame within a frame (Lazybone Shuffle, 2010), and some are as formless as weather (Poodle Pit, 2006; Big Joy, 2004).  Other paintings feel figurative, implying portrait heads seen frontally (P., 2008) or in profile (Igitur, 2008).  Similar variability is found in her drawings, of which a good number are on view.  Just as her imagery changes from one painting to the next, von Heyl tends to switch up her game as she applies new layers of paint.  Brushy applications, free stains, and even finger-painting are juxtaposed with layers using more mechanical techniques such as stenciling, in which paint is deposited in flat, unmodulated colors (Alastor, 2008).

In weaker hands, von Heyl’s approach might produce nothing more than a tedious lesson in art history or an incoherent mélange of tropes.  But in her case each painting strategy feels fully digested.  These paintings are not quotations or appropriations, but rather fields of action from which von Heyl generates idiosyncratic forms and dynamics.  The works, individually and as a group, are a kaleidoscope of painting languages that becomes disruptive in the best sense.  Her paintings are not interested in affiliation, but rather in questioning relationships and assumptions.  In our historical moment, von Heyl’s restive work is as necessary as a protest in a public square.

   Daniel Gerwin is an artist living in Philadelphia. He holds an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and is a lecturer at the University of the Arts. Daniel is a regular contributor to Machete.