Charline Von Heyl
by Shirley Kaneda
BOMB 113/Fall 2010/ART

October 2010

I first came across Charline von Heyl’s paintings in the mid-’90s. She had moved to New York from Germany in 1994, having had her first New York solo show at Friedrich Petzel Gallery. After this initial signal impression, whenever I saw an oddly compelling painting, but was at a loss to name the artist, it turned out to be one of Charline von Heyl’s.

Her work is indeed difficult to pin down. She vigorously resists a signature style, but persists in establishing a distinct and inclusive approach. Art-historical references such as Synthetic Cubism and Abstract Expressionism are present, not as appropriations, but as part of a freewheeling spirit, playing on the effects and characteristics of these canonical references. Like a writer who invents individual characters in order to bring variegated aspects to a narrative through the depth of different personalities and their relationships to each other, Von Heyl structures her paintings by presenting sets of unstable tendencies and making surprising juxtapositions and interactions. Still, her work is resolutely abstract and non-narrative. There may be ghosts of recognizable objects, but the viewer is never asked to make comparisons between the abstract and the representational. Rather, she seems to ask, how useful can such distinctions be when our experiences are ever more complex and convoluted, and are not reducible to singularities?

Von Heyl’s paintings, works on paper, and prints take cues from high art, popular culture, comics, and design, as well as from the slipstream of cultural oddities found around eccentric Internet sites. But what makes her work abstract is its unnamable or unidentifiable aspect. Her output can be considered authoritative and idealistic, simultaneously playful and irresponsible. It is these contradictions that give her work an urgency that remains oblique and an intensity that is open-ended, enabling the viewer to experience paradoxical sensations. Von Heyl’s work stimulates the viewer with inconsistencies such as the sensuous and the rigorous, or pleasure and discomfort, resulting in highly idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and imaginative works. She is a painter who is committed to renewing painting, never remaining in the comfort zone.

For our interview, we met at her studio on 15th Street, where large, stretched canvases in different stages of development were lined and stacked against all of the walls. In another room, the mock-up of her upcoming monograph lined another wall, while drawings and more paintings were stacked everywhere. Like her paintings, she is forthright, full of humor, and uniquely articulate.

Shirley Kaneda That was really nice to see the mock-up of your book.

Charline von Heyl It’s a monograph that’s going to come out this year at Les Presses du Réel, the publishing company of Le Consortium in France. I’m very happy about it. And putting it together made me look at all my paintings again, which has been interesting.

SK When you look at all your images together, you can really see the diversity in your work. Each painting is quite different from the next. You’ve mentioned that your shows tend to come across like group shows, but I see a constant vocabulary that you’re involved in. Looking at the earlier images that you just showed me, I see you move around within your own history, bringing back things from your past to the present quite fluidly.

CVH Yeah, I am kind of an ahistorical person. I’m not that interested in the idea of development or a linear history and my taste has actually not changed much. But considering the entirety of my work made me realize that there have obviously been steps, and that I am clearly coming full circle now.

SK Some artists do change their styles fairly radically. I don’t know if it comes from this modernist idea of always undoing what you did before so you can start something new. Do you like to start in that tabula-rasa way?

CVH Yes, I do. But it has more to do with my absolute lack of visual memory. I’ve never quite understood if it’s a weakness or a strength, and it doesn’t matter. My mind works like a surveillance camera on a loop, constantly registering and erasing. I am so dependent on what I see at the moment of seeing that, very early on, I was probably trying to create a surplus value for that moment—in order to have something more to look at.

SK Seeing is kind of beleaguered now. There’s been a lot of theory that establishes a point of view that is antivision, or antiseeing. It threatens what is valuable about art.

CVH Yeah, I think that’s right. There is definitely this fear of being visually manipulated, which by its nature is also antipainting. A lot of people in the art world are actually unlearning to see. What I would want my paintings to do is to break that barrier, to impose themselves and insist on being seen despite that fear. But that is almost impossible.

SK How do you start your paintings? Where does the vocabulary come from?

CVH I just start them. Here’s a white canvas, and I’m going to put something on it. It always feels like a really ridiculous thing to do. (laughter) But it also feels like the ultimate violation and it takes up a huge amount of energy.

SK So, it is intuitive?

CVH It is completely intuitive. A color, a movement, whatever. Very much depending on the mood du jour. It’s like a writer putting the white sheet in and starting to write something. You know that you’re going to transform it and transform it, but you just have to start somehow. Rarely does it happen that this first move becomes the finished painting.

SK It’s like turning on the faucet?

CVH Exactly. I have never started with an idea. I’m certainly not interested in depicting anything, but neither am I interested in abstraction for its own sake. It’s important not to forget where I come from. Abstraction was absolutely nonexistent in my immediate surroundings in Germany in the ‘80s. The positions that I was confronted with were of Sigmar Polke, Joerg Immendorff, Martin Kippenberger, and Albert Oehlen’s. It was a heavily male, very jokey, and ironic stance toward painting. Anarchistic and also quite arrogant.

SK Unself-critical?

CVH Definitely. (laughter) But they were very critical of German painting, especially Neo-Expressionism. All those neo-primitive painters from Berlin, like Salomé or Rainer Fetting, were looked upon as the enemy. Neo-Expressionism was seen as a signifier of stupidity, and the antidote was irony, mostly in the form of really stupid jokes. I liked the work, I liked the guys, but it wasn’t something that I could, or wanted to, do. But I loved the idea that you could be that aggressive and cool via painting! So I started out as a painter in an environment where painting was something very powerful and I actually never lost that feeling. I never doubted painting.

SK That’s probably why there’s both authority and humor in your paintings, especially in your last show. There’s playfulness and daring, but you seem conscious of not making paintings based on that. They don’t come off jokey. They almost fight each other.

CVH Yes, I know, there is something irritating about the paintings in that way, and it comes directly out of my history. I would call it the cringe factor. And what made you cringe was procedure and material and imagery, not jokes or literal irony. The fact that the paintings made you cringe was their power. I tried to get there with the most awkward materials, goofy tricks and techniques, and with the dumbest messages. Always forcing things together that could not possibly work. It felt like bending bones. And I think that’s still in there even though my work has changed. But it wasn’t about being painterly or unpainterly, or abstract or representational; those questions just didn’t exist.

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