Abstract Critical

Now or Else: Charline Von Heyl

Written by John Bunker

Charline von Heyl Lack and Excess 2011 Acrylic on linen 508 x 457 mm © Charline von Heyl Courtesy of Fredrich Petzel Gallery, New York Photograph: Larry Lamay

As I walked through ‘Liverpool1′, the new shopping district in the centre of this great city, a title of a small work by Charline Von Heyl popped into my mind… ‘Lack and Excess’. All these retail outlets are plastered in the photo-shopped flesh of 20ft high beautiful people complete with clothes and accessories – just as they are in every major town and city all over the world. Our notions of selfhood are always on the move. We now perceive ourselves as subjects unavoidably formed by intricate webs of ideological apparatus and power relations. Yet I believe that these relations can still be negotiated or even contested. The question is whether abstract painting can have a role in exploring the interwoven threads of technology, desire and consumption stitched so deeply into the fabric of our sense of self and in the changing world at large?

It has been suggested that abstract painting can somehow provide a pause in the ongoing, relentless pounding of our senses by the image saturated virtual universe. Some might see abstraction as a safe haven, ‘an escape from it all’. But what if we reverse this idea and look at it as a way of analysing, even critiquing the ever evolving visual realms of late Capitalism? Charline Von Heyl’s work might go some way to answering this question and I’ll try to use some examples of her work from the current show at Tate Liverpool to explain why.

Charline von Heyl Orpheus 2008 Acrylic on Linen 2083 x 188 x 33mm © Charline von Heyl Courtesy of Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne & Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

The first thing that struck me as I entered the 4th floor galleries is the crackle of visual energy between the works. Most of the paintings operate on a very human scale. Just off square, just over the height of an average person and as wide as your arms outstretched. They instantly reveal the act of seeing as an embodied experience. This creates a great physical counterweight to the jarring and startling juxtapositions of painterly techniques and imagery within the work.

‘Frenhoferin’ 2009 is almost a painterly illustration of an Eva Hess sculpture. One is also reminded of Hess’s feminist inspired and aesthetically ambitious subversion of the macho and ‘rational’ minimalist grid via connotations of the corporeal, particularly the body as fallible. But Von Heyl transforms this subversive inference of the body into something equally as dark, yet optimistic, even empowering. Works like ‘Orpheus’ 2008 and ‘Black Stripe Mojo’ 2009  together with ‘Woman’ 2009 all have obvious signifiers of the body but, just like torn billboards, these exist alongside layers of ambiguous fleshy forms stretching and tugging at one’s eyes. Mix this with broken shards of hard edged abstraction and you enter a powerful uncanny painterly realm. They operate like dark playgrounds of aesthetic transgression – full of unnerving yet exhilarating libidinal energy.

Charline von Heyl Woman #2 2009 Acrylic, oil, & charcoal on linen 2083 x 1981 mm © Charline von Heyl

‘Regretsy’ 2009 contains a strange and dark shape-shifting entity that pulsates at the centre of a dense charcoal calligraphy of half formed depictions of wine glasses and bottles. What comes to mind is the intense and violent energy generated when cartoon characters are smashed, squeezed and squashed in and against their surrounds. Von Heyl by-passes received notions as to what an abstract painting should look like by taking hold of these ubiquitous visual languages and transfiguring them, using abstraction as a liberating visual force.

Charline von Heyl Regretsy 2009 Acrylic, oil and Charcoal on linen 1981 x 2083 mm © Charline von Heyl Courtesy of Fredrich Petzel Gallery, New York Photograph: Larry Lamay

A group of smaller works on paper give us a real insight into Von Heyl’s approach to image making. Woodcut, silkscreen, lithography and xerox copies are combined in brutal lo-fi collisions and mutations. They highlight the rich seem of visual energy locked in the printed and screen based matter of the mass media. Much could be made of  Von Heyl’s German training under Immendorf and the powerful influence of the nihilistic Kippenberger, Polke the arch-ironist, and Oehlen the master of ‘bad painting’. But I think there’s a palpable sense of urgency and graphic intensity to these paintings. They are refreshingly knowing in their embrace of the base and contingent imagery of the mass media but earnest in their search for something new. Heyl has the uncomfortable habit of making the otherwise compelling work of, say, Fiona Rae, David Reed, Beatriz Milhazez, Mark Grotjahn, or Mary Heilmann look somewhat content with itself. In her hands painting has become a battleground within which a sense of self oscillates between how we feel bodily experience and how it is endlessly represented to us. Here we see abstraction as a viral hybrid, one which feeds on the history of its own forms and the mediated experience of the body that assaults our senses everyday.

Von Heyl puts it like this…

“One reason that abstraction is going to be relevant is that by its nature it is more linked to design, and the problem of design as, or versus, art is at the core of everything right now. It’s almost the main question: how to get a painting beyond design? Why get a painting beyond design, that question is also still out there, but I don’t find it so interesting personally. Representation goes beyond design via psychology and narrative. But to get there without depictions, without representational images, which I just see as words—that is really hard. It is the sweeter victory and more surprising in the end…….”

Charline Von Heyl By Shirley Kaneda. Bomb Magazine Fall 2010.

Paintings are now often looked at as though they are nothing more than illustrations of a conceptual cliché. Similarly it sometimes feels as if art in general has become a kind of quasi puritanical demystification process with artist playing cultural historian come detective. In contrast what is great about this show is that there is no pre-destined curatorial/ theoretical escalator to get on. You can’t close your eyes and get told loads of stuff about what you should be thinking while you wait to get off at the other end.

This is the kind of abstract art that gets out there in the big dirty world rather than looking to theory, academia, historicism or personal back-stories for sustenance. It is in the rubric of abstraction that artists have historically tested the limits of what a painting might be. Von Heyl renews this tradition of innovation and experiment. Experiment means formation as much as information. It means Destruction as much as it could mean deconstruction.  It is about production as well as reproduction. Jump in that elevator to the 4th floor of Tate Liverpool. Inhale deeply while taking in the views of the almighty Mersey. Then watch with amazement as Von Heyl rips up these shopping mall spectres of glass, steel and photo-shopped consumption in a way that only 21st century abstraction can.

John Bunker 2012.

On Thursday 17th May at 6.30pm John Bunker will be leading a tour and Q&A of his show ‘SUNBURSTS IN THE CITY OF SHADOWS!’ at Unit 3 Project Space.

  1. Nick Moore said…

    I had the opportunity last week end to drop into the Tate Liverpool to see the Von Heyl Exhibition, spurred on partly by John’s enthusiastic review and encouragement. And I am glad I did. Though it was not without trepidation, having read on the Tate flyer ‘Abstract painting today is epitomised by this artist’…..Having been to the Indiscipline of Painting at Tate St Ives I gathered myself for ….what? (more slick graphic/design/illustration based impersonal/fashionable painting….) and tried to enter the gallery with an open mind. I had not encountered her paintings in the flesh before, only in books and articles, and wasn’t sure what to make of them, though they did draw my attention with their sometimes jarring juxtapositions and contradictions.
    And there in front of me on walking in was ‘Woman 2’, from 2009 an overtly figurative image, unquestionably a female outline, on a background of pastel diamond patterns, but with two fleshily painted circles and the rest of the body similarly painted, filled with black, grey and pink diamonds partially obscured with black splodges; in a recent article, in Bomb magazine, from which John includes a different quote, Von Heyl states that ‘if I hear the explanation that I am hovering between abstraction and representation one more time I’m going to go on a killing spree.’ Watch out NY, you have been warned! But this painting is clearly a female figure, with painterly areas and graphic patterns…

    This use of overt ‘representational’ or ‘figurative’ imagery is there in a few of the paintings in the exhibition. Sometimes it is in the background – as in ‘Regretsy’ also from 2009, where the dense, grey, knowingly Cubist mesh of glasses and bottles are subordinated to a squarish darker shape, leading to an intense visual incongruity; sometimes it is less obvious, as in the title eg ‘Frenhoferin’ also from 2009, with its layers of ‘dirty colours and pearlescent, decaying flesh tones’ enmeshed in a distorted grid in which Von Heyl wanted ‘to go completely over the top with it and create the ultimate paradox; a painting that would be all flesh and therefore all representational, but also completely abstract’ (catalogue, ICA Pennsylvania 2011) it is reminiscent of a Klee, but more sensual and references the Unknown Masterpiece in which the female form is overpainted so much it becomes an abstract ‘mess’;
    and sometimes the imagery is obvious in both the title and the painting, as in ‘Flagbird’ 2011, in which a black and white polka-dot bird sits between the stained/poured brown on the left half of the canvas and the ubiquitous black and white diamonds on the right. There is no getting away from this abstraction/representation tension, it is there in the paintings.

    In all, these are knowing paintings full of art historical references, some less obvious than others ( eg Frenhofer), even though they start from zero. They are full of paradoxes and sharp edges, with references to hard-edged and painterly abstraction, comics, cartoons and graphics, some juxtapositions of which are more satisfying than others; but perhaps the biggest paradox is in Von Heyl herself. In the Bomb interview she says ‘It’s almost the main question: how to get a painting beyond design?… But to get there without depictions, without representational images, which I just see as words—that is really hard.’ then she continues later ‘as long as I know what I am doing, I design….I don’t want to make the painting, I want the painting to invent itself and surprise me.’
    And as John says, “Von Heyl by-passes received notions as to what an abstract painting should look like by taking hold of these ubiquitous visual languages and transfiguring them, using abstraction as a liberating visual force” thus creating what she calls ‘a kind of visual mindfuck…that is ultimately what I want the beholder to experience.’ (Bomb magazine again)
    But I felt that the paintings without the up-front graphic formalism were the ones that satisfied me most, for example ‘Black and Blue’ from 2005 and ‘Oread’ from 2011 – the former does have the ubiquitous checkerboard and grid in it but they are subsumed in the painterliness of the blues, blacks and browns. The latter is made of green and black layers with floating shapes, drips and some dots, but again the graphic formalism is not foremost. Both are sensuous, with no depictions or representational images and thus by her definition, beyond design – but had none of the visual aggression or ‘mindfucks’ that she also wants – so by her own standards, they both succeed and fail.
    I wished I had the time to go back and revisit the exhibition again because it was very engaging and there was so much to take in, explore and sit with…all in all a playful, paradoxical and thought provoking experience…more please.