Charline von Heyl: New Work at Petzel, New York

By Joshua Mack

Charline von Heyl, Dial P for Painting, 2017, acrylic and oil on linen, 152 × 127 cm. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York


Seventeen recent paintings at Petzel Gallery, all but one dated 2017 or 2018, distinguish Charline von Heyl as a master of contemporary painting and mark a newly mature synthesis of the issues and devices she’s advanced since her student days in Germany during the 1980s.

Interested in bringing together elements that, as she explained in a 2008 interview, ‘couldn’t work out, and on top of that forcing them to work with grace and ease’, von Heyl has over the course of her career developed a method that is at once calculated and ham-fisted, mixing-and-matching motifs and styles in order to subvert artistic traditions and create fresh visual possibilities. In a group of early-1990s paintings shown here in 2015, for example, flat planes were overlaid and interrupted by loosely applied brushstrokes and combined with motifs such as palettes, dresses and mushrooms. Paintings of the last decade might include wonky grids, squiggles, stripes, zigzags, intentionally painted drips or schematic figurative elements such as a bottle, a brick or a face. The nods to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism were clear, as was a penchant for kitsch, a source for von Heyl of ‘raw emotion’. But these works remained reliant on graphic elements and on a disparate, though intentional, quirkiness too easily seen and overthought.

The same devices persist in these new paintings: there are stripes, and stars; a schematic female profile repeats in three works. A scrawled rotary phone sits at the lower right of a yellow field. It devolves into a deadening cliché reinforced by the piece’s title: Dial P for Painting (2017). Other works evince a more nuanced and catalytic handling of paint and composition. The central portion of Corrido (2018) glows with layered purples and greens. Repeating, overlapping and echoing curves and festoons that seem to dance across the canvas unite flat patterns, long feathery brushstrokes and drippy washes. A new looseness and freedom pertain.

In Mana Hatta (2017; the title nods to the Native American name for New York and to Walt Whitman’s 1860 ‘Mannahatta’, which celebrates the diversity of the city named thereafter) drawn and painted squiggles repeat in the outline of rabbits leaping across the lower third. Red dots, reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s, fill their bodies and reappear here and there across the composition. Splotches of red and concentric circles that recall Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s shimmering discs and Jasper Johns’s targets create other visual and historical equivalencies. All seem to swirl and overlap within and around what might be read as a head, a motif that seems to imply, as another of Whitman’s poem does of the individual self and of the United States, that painting contains myriads. The elements von Heyl uses cohere, despite their diversity, forcing a readjustment of expectations about what might be whole or beautiful.

Charline von Heyl: New Work at Petzel, New York, 6 September – 20 October

From the December 2018 issue of ArtReview