in Features | 02 JAN 99
Featured in
Issue 44

Colour Coded

Charline von Heyl

in Features | 02 JAN 99

In the early 80s, painting ransacked its heritage, bringing together abstraction and figuration, pattern and monochrome, business and sparsity, in an attempt to investigate the medium's inherent contradictions. Painting's boundaries appeared to be fluid; historically-conditioned notions of what had been perceived as painting's last stand could be redefined. Lines, tubes, blobs, spiders' webs, make-up, plastic, dust - everything was tried out and then thrown back into the various battles: about meaning, about unexpected resistance, radical refusal, the devaluation of painting's prominence and about enjoyment itself. The shifts in meaning between these different possible approaches to painting turned out to be relative.

Charline von Heyl's painting is closely related to the work of this period, and traces of the convoluted history of the reinvigoration of painting are clearly visible in her work. It may be that this history is not such a potent force outside Germany, and thus it may be tempting to compare her pictures with other contemporary painting purely on the basis of certain formal or material similarities; but that would be misleading. In the 80s, artists like Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, influenced by Sigmar Polke and his references to Francis Picabia's art of the 40s, extended the possibilities of painting. Von Heyl was not the only one who felt encouraged by their example to focus on this apparently old-fashioned medium.

The paintings in her first solo shows in the early 90s were remarkable for the way in which she handled form and gesture in an almost coarse, matter-of-fact way. Paint was slung around in thick daubs and smudges; a careful, densely worked skin of colour emerged. Brushmarks slipped up and down in sudden verticals, while colour transitions were subtly handled. Nothing was too perfect, and her programme of pre-selected quotations looked as if it were assembled with remarkable ease: experiments with solvents, with surface effects, a batik-style watercolour technique, the smooth monochrome. If there was ornament, its energy could be classified into orderly and disorderly; if there was three-dimensional volume, its components would veer from soft to muscular, tense and sinewy.

The amount of figuration in the paintings was dependent on their reading. One side of a painting would be only half-recognisable, but the forms would come together like two sides of a zip on the other. You could almost reach out and grab forms that looked like, for example, two thick, plastic-covered cables, but if you did they retreated back into a hard-edged silhouette. The language these images used functioned like words placed between gaps in grammar to create ambiguity. Perhaps the metaphor of machines, wires and heavy industry is an appropriate one to explain the strange unwieldliness and power of von Heyl's huge colour spaces and unresolved, implied forms.

The most recent series of pictures, presented last year at Gisela Capitain in Cologne and Friedrich Petzel in New York, seem much more reticent. Previously, the large formats were filled with darkness and an extraordinary vehemence. Now they are bathed in bright, almost excessive light, due to the large, white-painted sections and fresh, direct colours. They still share some elements with the earlier series - the appended surface structure, the strong outlines with their resistant arches and tensions - but von Heyl has obviously tried to detach herself from the lack of ambiguity that eye-catching forms inevitably imply. The images now have more in common with landscape than industry, more like scenery that makes concessions to narrative than high-pressure ornamentation. They are tonally graded, fluid and more uniform, even though contrasts and acute differences still have a part to play. Gestural quotations and attitudes are still set against each other - the monochrome radicalism, for example, still almost a stand-in, is now worked into a more painterly approach, creating precariously balanced set-pieces. A single colour dissolves into an airy atmosphere of turquoise blue - a sky drawn down towards a scenic floor of churned up yellow and ochre. There, suddenly, the gesture is dropped, and we are back to paint, soberly applied.

In almost all her new pictures von Heyl allows herself to be drawn towards representation, but in each case she abruptly breaks it up, disallowing the obvious take. For example, in one painting we recognise a green frog, sitting uncomfortably amid an experiment with white paint representing light or air. On closer inspection, it looks like an unfolded paper frog that you could re-fold and stand up. The frog is surrounded by other coloured cut-out forms that also look as though they could be made into three-dimensional objects - a small paper figure, perhaps, or a little scene. A red, back-to-front S-curve suggests a world reversed, but could also function as a stand for the models. Everything, including the frog, hangs inverted in the air, half standing, half stuck together.

Von Heyl works on the border between continuous space and discrete form, examining the powerlessness of three-dimensional bodies in a two-dimensional world. These are the limits of Conceptual painting which - on its return from an expedition through the vocabulary of the medium - she now views from a perspective less simplified by the concreteness of assertion.

Translated by Michael Robinson