BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Its Own Reality

Charline von Heyl’s paintings reveal a unique language developed in the face of information streams and image overload

BY Kirsty Bell in Features | 05 MAY 09

The point of abstraction is not so much meaning as being. In an essay about the differences between American and English abstraction, David Sylvester wrote: ‘Before the work conveys reality it must achieve its own reality, before it can be a symbol it must rejoice in being a fact, and the more it affirms its autonomous reality, the more will it contain the possibility of returning us to the reality of life.’1 The question now, as then, is how to create a reality from ‘a configuration of shapes and colours and marks’2 that can be autonomous, not to mention convincing and relevant, especially given the current barrages of visual material and information that make up our various realities, virtual, televised and otherwise. The other question is why?

Charline von Heyl has described her drive towards abstraction as an over achieving desire to invent something that has not yet been seen; a refusal to rely on the existing visual world, to surprise not only the viewer but first of all herself. For von Heyl, abstraction, and the practice of painting as a whole, is a wilfully isolated practice, a monologue that continues in the face of information streams and image overload, regardless of dissenting or disbelieving noises around it. But how to have a monologue in the language of painting, given the number and volume of other painterly voices that form a chorus, versed in centuries of marks, gestures, expressions and strategies? Clarity amidst this cacophony is a lot to hope for.

Charline von Heyl, Sabotage (detail), 2008, artist's book, 77 x 56 cm. All images courtesy: the artist and Capitain Petzel, Berlin

‘Whoever writes proceeds in a way not dissimilar to one who paints, using a quotation that he had first singled out for completely different purposes, to start out on a new development, in every sense of the word’ – wrote Hubert Damisch.3 The painterly quotation, or borrowed gesture, is the essential first step in the stumbling, unmapped journey towards something never seen before. And this tug of war between total isolation and reliance on what has come before is at the core of von Heyl’s practice. While borrowing gestures, tics, techniques from predecessors, historical or recent, she proceeds to bury them in a vigorously two-way process of destruction and creation, in order to find that elusive thing, the ‘new’: ‘I want to get abstraction to a point where it screams that it is something: a representation and a thing.’4 That ‘thing’ is plain to see in a recent series of paintings made while artist-in-residence at Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, which convey exactly the kind of ‘autonomous reality’ Sylvester described. Igitur (2008) shows an irregular object, outlined in thick black. Parts of it glow a vivid bloody embers red, there are lumpen loaf-like forms in brown and blue within it, extremities are cross-shaped points, or ring-like loops, the surface is scratched and scumbled. It hovers on a lilac background like an obscure talisman, reminiscent of a great many things, as well as a catalogue of painters from Arshile Gorky to Wols to Philip Guston, but no single reference adheres; it turns on its own axis, familiar but strange. Self-evident, it has no single meaning but invades our reality with what the artist has called ‘existential surplus value.’5

Charline von Heyl has described her drive towards abstraction as the desire to invent something that has not been seen yet. 

Charline von Heyl was born in the German Rhineland and went to art school in Hamburg and Düsseldorf, studying with Jörg Immendorf and Fritz Schwengler. In the 1980s, she witnessed first hand the vibrant Cologne-based art scene, where radical and experimental approaches to painting were proposed by artists like Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, with their so-called ‘bad painting’ and dabblings along the fringes of failure. She took part in the celebrated group exhibition ‘The Köln Show’ in Cologne in 1990, which also marked the pinnacle of Cologne’s reign, before Berlin started to assert its credentials in the following years. In the mid-1990s, following a short stay in Berlin, von Heyl moved to New York.

Charline von Heyl, Blotto, 2004, oil on canvas, 208 x 198 cm

Having extracted herself from Germany’s weighty painterly history, itself intertwined with the complexity of the country’s post-war political situation and fractured identity, von Heyl continued to make abstract paintings in New York. This decision went decidedly against the grain of artistic trends there and elsewhere, at a time when many artists were engaged in analytical forms of institutional critique, or the machinations of post-appropriation art. But it gave her the advantage of relative peace, while her reluctance to craft a single, signature style shielded her from the frenzies of the early 21st-century art market. She carved out her own isolation within the city’s hustle to pursue abstraction in her own quietly aggressive fashion.

Choosing to work with canvases usually around her height or within reach of her upheld arm (i.e. around two metres) and maybe twice her arm span wide, she would begin with a motif or image, and proceed to destroy it through a process of over-painting, until its origins were no longer recognizable and the activity of painting itself became the organizing principle for the canvas’s composition. Tantalizing signifiers could sometimes be made out, teasing the viewer’s desire to recognize a landscape with an arching bridge, or a still life of some description, but the dynamics of the compositions occurred rather in a play of slippery indeterminate forms, an often jarring use of colour, and the employment of various strategies of paint application within one work. A palpable sense of conflict would take place in the work, as figure and ground struggle for precedence, or smooth slabs of colour buffer up against roughly brushed sections. In a work from ten years ago, Untitled [5/98] I (1998), a sea of tomato red threatens to overwhelm an ambiguous white area, which asserts itself on the left but recedes on the right. The assurance of this body of red colour is denied, however, by inconclusive areas of modelling, and ultimately by several vertical incursions into the white: flat red brush strokes that shatter all the drama of abstraction by revealing the nuts and bolts of their application. ‘It used to be that if I discovered a reference to something that was familiar in my paintings, I would erase it, wanting the painting to be something completely new, completely unexpected,’6 von Heyl said in a recent interview. This push and pull creates a conflict played out within the canvas, where the final work is the result of a trail of painterly negotiations that wrestle familiarity out of the frame.

Charline von Heyl, P., 2008, acrylic and wax crayon on linen, 2.1 x 2 m

Von Heyl has never made studies for her paintings, and does not begin with a pre-conceived idea, allowing the works to be determined rather by the decisions that arise in the process of their making. She has, however, over the last decade or so, been engaged in a productive supplementary practice of collage-based works on paper and, since 2007, specifically print-making. Here woodcut, silkscreen and lithography appear in unconventional unions in a prolific output of mostly black and white works that suggest a wild overflow of imagery, in contrast to the conscious restraint of picturing that occurs in the paintings. The floodgates are open and everything that catches the artist’s eye is allowed in. Zigzags and striped lines masked out with tape, provide the most simple means of pattern making; photographic imagery (a strappy shoe, a laughing woman, a skinned rabbit) is overlaid with bubbling stains; looping lines may or may not describe forms; there are snippets of text, airbrushed patches. A loose, trailing, tripled-up line becomes a long-armed blank-eyed zombie. The fluidity of image making, in all its banality, is thematized while the chance decisions involved in von Heyl’s abstract painting practice are extrapolated and literalized. As one work declares in cursive script ‘the only problem now of course is to simply hold your horses’. Sometimes an image printed on plastic film is laid over one on a sheet of paper, creating a random doubling-up of imagery, which seems, however, to multiply, rather than simply add up, associations. A recent artist’s book, Sabotage, makes use of this technique, interspersing paper pages with leaves of printed plastic film, to create a constant modifying of images – new ones are created just as the originals are destroyed by the act of the reader’s turning the book’s pages. An active to-ing and fro-ing takes place when looking through the book, which seems to flow both backwards and forwards. As images are amended, fudged, overlaid and replaced, destruction and creation appear to be just two sides of the same flipped coin.

A number of paintings made between 2002 and 2004, many of which were included in von Heyl’s 2004 exhibition at the Secession in Vienna, engage this idea of superimposition of separate images where two, or several, kinds of pictures seem to be holding forth within the same canvas, jostling for attention. The controlled destruction at hand in earlier pieces is nudged out by a kind of strategic proliferation, where abstraction is created by overload and blotting out; a wall of noise on several tracks simultaneously. In addition, some of these paintings start to borrow the visual characteristics of the works on paper. In Red and Yeller (2004), screens of colours seem to have been applied in sequence: yellow, red, orange, black. But there is a strange sense of optical confusion as each colour struggles to sit tight on the surface, none content to be the background. Black lines are both shadows or outlines of invisible shapes. The eye travels restlessly across the surface, baffled by its busyness. Later von Heyl described introducing the look of printing into her painting practice so that ‘one cannot follow the steps. These steps often contradict themselves, making an image that ultimately does not reveal its roots.’7 The spatial leaps, false starts and abrupt changes of direction or mood in these paintings create a sense of questioning and instability that keeps the viewer alert. Doubt and indecision are harnessed as the driving forces. Their vibrancy hints at desire, but never satisfaction.

This may be arrogant abstraction, but it is not loud-mouthed: a painting can say a lot more when it is softly spoken.

‘The work of art must offer a resistance to the spectator’s fantasy, a check as well as a stimulus’, wrote Sylvester; ‘in non-figurative art, it is the reality, the presence, of the painting itself that has to fulfil this function.’8 This resistance finds itself in the intrinsic contradictions of von Heyl’s paintings. Their moodiness is a strategic defence mechanism, to counterweight the pomp and self-importance of the abstract gesture. They do not aim at legibility, and indeed take no interest in delivering a message. Even what they tell you about painting should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the artist has accumulated a battery of tricks and techniques, at the ready to fake an impression rather than give you the real thing. Her gestural outbursts are likely to be carefully studied, with what appears to be a background added in later, filled-in carefully with a fine brush. The paintings may at first appear gaudy and promiscuous, but their seduction is calculated. They act out a range of emotions, but at a distance, offering them up to their audience with a haughty wink. To borrow John Kelsey’s keen phrase: ‘The painting knows it is a stage and that performance is its highest power.’9

All this calculation is not to say von Heyl’s practice is ironic or cynical, however. It is more a case of restraint and control, an eking out of painting’s lascivious qualities so as not to overwhelm; in other words, to hold the horses. This may be arrogant abstraction, but it is not loud-mouthed: a painting can say a lot more when it is softly spoken. Or, as von Heyl herself put it, ‘I am not interested in the sublime, but in a sort of silent and extreme spectacle, a kind of melodramatic abstraction.’10   

Charline von Heyl, Igitur, 2008, acrylic on linen, 2.1 x 2 m

As well as the techniques of printing, the imagery from her works on paper has been steadily seeping into von Heyl’s paintings over the last few years. Thick cross-hatching, like randomly-applied strips of masking tape, regularly striped backgrounds, curving trails of jagged points like barbed fences or rows of sharp teeth, zigzag lines that frame or wander. Von Heyl’s works on paper provide a steady-flow of ready-made vocabulary that, though often appropriated, now, through its third-hand status, has the advantage of being her ‘own’. The monologue in which she has been determinedly engaged has racked up a barrage of idiosyncratic turns of phrase that may be sampled at will and need not be buried. As these belong to her, they do not threaten to subsume the painting’s own new ‘thing-ness’ in the general cacophony of painterly gestures; they strengthen, rather than water-down, her voice. As a result, the elaborate acts of denial, back-track and contraposto U-turn that occurred in earlier works are replaced by a more direct and open-armed approach. Quotation is allowed and even enjoyed. The singular voice has become fuller, clearer, more sonorous.

The solitary concentration afforded by two months living in the Texas desert during her Chinati Foundation residence resulted in the startling clarity of a group of four paintings possibly representing a high point of von Heyl’s brand of melodramatic abstraction. Bold snatches of representational imagery, previously so carefully suppressed, surface and tease. In Alastor (2008), fluid melting forms in vivid yellow, barbed black curves and a spiked sun, are set against a background of blood red handprints. With these bloody handprints it is almost ridiculous, nearly hysterical, but it works, suggesting ambiguous ecstatic ritual, hinting at sacrifice, and dancing its dynamic colours and rhythmic lines. Orpheus (2008), employs the same colour scheme of yellow and red, but here the evenly striped yellow and white background supports a scattering of stencilled curves and zigzag forms that cannot help but draw a free-floating face, with gappy teeth shafts and rounded eyes (or are they breasts?). In P. (2008) a ring of black zigzags, outlined in day-glo red, form a mask whose centre is a luminous scratchy grey nothing, like a voided voodoo mask, or a monster size totemic head. This sharp combination of a represented ‘nothing’ with something as symbolically fundamental as the mask is a highly focused expression of the tantalizing paradoxes von Heyl likes to put to work. 

Charline von Heyl, Alastor, 2008, acrylic on linen, 2.1 x 2 m

The Marfa paintings offer up crass readings and ridicule them at the same time. Their titles dangle literary associations. They hint at shadows of ideas, but manifest a potentiality of meaning that no single, specific meaning can contain. The contradictions and reversals that have always characterized von Heyl’s work are here, but are sublimated in forms that are now almost absurdly plain to see, yet still resistant to unambiguous interpretation, swaying from the recognizable to the intangible. The contradictions are there in the sophisticated techniques flipping background to foreground and back again, and which look like they are printed but are hand painted. The disruption, destruction and anachronism that have always figured in her work are reined in and the paintings become not so much a fight against outside elements as an elaborate and entertaining dance with the elements within.

  1. David Sylvester, ‘English Abstract Art’, About Modern Art. Critical Essays 1948–96, Chatto & Windus, London, p. 151
  2. Ibid
  3. Hubert Damisch in Fenetre jaune cadmium, our les dessous de la peinture, Paris, Seuil, 1984, quoted from Yves Alain Bois, Painting as Model, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990, p. 251
  4. ‘1000 Words, Charline von Heyl talks about Sabotage’, Artforum, October, 2008, p. 331
  5. Von Heyl in conversation with author, November, 2008
  6. Von Heyl interviewed by Gary Garrels in Oranges and Sardines: Conversations on Abstract Painting (exhibition catalogue), The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2009
  7. Von Heyl, Artforum, October, 2008
  8. Sylvester p. 151
  9. John Kelsey, ‘Big Joy Time’ in Charline von Heyl, Secession, Vienna, p. 47
  10. Von Heyl in Gary Garrells interview

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.