Establishing the Relationship of Now – Charline von Heyl at the ICA

“What I want to do with a painting is establish this relationship of now. Y’know, that you are actually in the moment, in front of a painting, and something happens. And what I want to happen is for the space between the painting and the viewer to get activated. And it activates the viewer to form a relationship. So the painting almost hovers in front of itself, between the viewer and the canvas.” -Charline von Heyl (via The Guardian)


The brain generally likes for things to be neat and orderly. The eyes take in visual stimuli in the form of shapes/colors/light and the brain likes to be able to tell you that you’re looking at a stop sign.  It sorts things into categories, appreciates patterns, and plants the seed that a breakfast beer is an OK idea.

So what happens when the brain is confronted with the work of Charline von Heyl?

It’s like a toaster being dropped in a bathtub.

Now, this isn’t to say that Charline’s work will stop you midstride and immediately cause your head to explode(although that would add a whole new dimension to my museum going experience). But if you take a moment and actually look at her large and imposing gestural works, there is a bit of cognitive dissonance going on.

For example, let’s look at one of her pieces in the exhibit, Yellow Guitar:

(Yellow Guitar, Private collection, New York)

This was my stream of consciousness: “OK. There’s a knife on the it. A bottle on the right..and then..I don’t know.. a slingshot?..with a checkered background..or are the checkers in front?..Should I be seeing a guitar? If the other shapes are amorphous, was my brain just interpreting the bottle as such to make things easier on me?”

mental confusion x 12 paintings & 30 collaged works on paper = Charline von Heyl at the ICA.

“I’ve always been about trickery in a certain way, and I love it, I have this whole bag of tricks that I add things to all the time. “

(Yellow Rose, Private collection, New York)

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a preview of Charline’s exhibition at the ICA with the artist on hand to guide us through. Early on, she addressed the question of “What is it that holds all your work together?” And prefaced her answer with some background on what she considers to be the 3 traditional approaches to painting:

1.) Original Approach – Window into the World “Look into a different reality and lose yourself”

2.) Modernist Approach -“A painting on the canvas, needs to be talking only about the fact that it is a painting, and talking about its own materiality.”

3.) Agressive Approach -“This involves Op Art- where visual aspects jump out of a painting and the space between the beholder and canvas became activated, almost having a sculptural presence.

And so, “What I want to do, which is the ultimate paradox, is to get all those 3 things together. It’s a very arrogant move to think about, but it is something that I really think is possible.”

(The artist explaining her creative process in front of ‘Alastor’)

Despite my natural aesthetic inclination towards figurative works, I felt there was something strangely thoughtful and intimate about her abstract forms.  Taking the time to read over placards, standing before the paintings, and stealing a few moments to meditate on the work truly enriched the experience for me.  Essentially, if you dismiss the collection through a 30-second whirlwind tour, you will unfortunately miss its subtleties and relevance.

During the visit, Charline’s complete candidness and confidence also created a feeling of connectivity with the artist. She will tell it like it is, straight faced, no nonsense and without all the meta art BS that is often times linked with art discussion. One reporter asked how she created the seemingly precise arcs of her piece, Alastor.

“How did I do it? I took a piece of tape..held one end..and went like this…” and proceeds to hastily arc her arm to the top of the piece.  Tada. I personally appreciated this willingness to de-mystify elements of the process.

This essence of honesty pervades the entirety of her works. Charline has an obscure fascination with the cartoon Krazy Kat:

And so he receives an abstracted nod at the ICA:

 (It’s Vot’s Behind Me That I Am (Krazy Kat), Private collection, New York; courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York)

And while she claims to not abstract her compositions for the sake of abstraction, she makes no qualms about building up, breaking down, deconstructing, and reassembling work until it gets to a place where she feels satisfied.

In Alastor she initially found this figure bothersome:

It resembled a figure from the German children’s game, “Das ist das haus vom Nikolaus”. And so she alleviated its prominence with lots of paint, mangling, and layering until she was content with the disassociation of the element, admitting that all the added flourishes were her attempt to disguise the form.

(Photo of Charline von Heyl, via Aubrey Mayer)

In an interview with Bomb Magazine, Charline explains how she considers herself fairly ahistorical,” I’m not that interested in the idea of development or a linear history and my taste has actually not changed much.” However, after immersing myself in this 5 year survey of her recent works at the ICA, a fairly brief period in her artistic life, I couldn’t help but sense some transformative changes and evolution even within such a narrow time frame.

Her works on paper illustrate this point perfectly in the way they were curated.  From my vantage point during the tour, seated in front of a grid of black and white works from 2011, I could see into the adjacent room a similar grid of works on paper from 2007.  And while a quick glance would render these two groupings as almost identical, I felt as though a closer look revealed certain subtleties in the mood, style, execution, and subject matter.



There is definitely a clear delineation between her thought process when creating paintings and her works on paper. So much so that she even has different sections of the studio dedicated to each medium.

“I found the idea of a drawing that renders something to be boring so I started to make drawings with a copy machine and making something random. I would slide an image in at 300% so I wouldn’t know what would actually get printed on a the drawing, and I made a whole series like that. And I realized while I was doing that, whenever I was making drawings, that it was an investigation into something I hadn’t discovered for myself. I needed to have a space and a time for that that had nothing to do with the paintings. It’s really a different world in my head.”

(Lazybone Shuffle, Courtesy of the artist, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne)

Charline considers her drawings to be a fun and experimental outlet that allows her to recharge her mental batteries in between paintings. The differentiation between the paintings and collage works extends even to the “naming” process.  The works on paper are left untitled whereas her paintings were given names, a notably intimate gesture that seems more appropriate than “titling” the works.

“I think that the paintings need names. I thought in the beginning that they didn’t, but now just having a memory of what I painted, it is so much nicer to say, oh Alastor, yeah it’s going there(regarding the curation of a show), it feels much more personal. It’s as if they deserve names.”

The exhibit runs through July 15th, 2012, so I suggest taking advantage of the warmer weather, the longer daylight hours, and pencil in a visit to the ICA (Aside: On a budget? Did you know about ICA Free Thursday Nights?) Even if abstract art isn’t something you feel you traditionally “get”, give this a shot, and go in with the understanding that maybe not all things are meant to be understood..

(Untitled, Courtesy of the artist, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne)

Toaster. Bathtub. ♥

This entry was posted in Artist Showcase and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *