PRINT October 2008



LIKE HER PRACTICE, Charline von Heyl’s studio is split in two: One room is for painting and the other for works on paper. In this second room, by the door that leads to the other side, is a large-format Epson ink-jet printer, one of the many machines the artist has enlisted in her recent experiments with printmaking and collage. Although she is known primarily as a painter, von Heyl has been spending more and more time devising unexpected encounters between digital reproduction and archaic precursors such as hand-carved woodcuts, stencils, lithographs, and screenprints. Paper functions as a carrier for many techniques, each layered on top of the other in unorthodox sequences and mixtures. As relentlessly abstract as her canvases, von Heyl’s works on paper are like travel posters for unpicturable, exploded destinations; they are pages of chaos. Sabotage, a book to be published next month by Xn Éditions and Christophe Daviet-Thery, in a limited edition of three hundred, is the latest project to emerge from the nonpainting side of von Heyl’s studio.
Rejecting both written language and illustration, Sabotage is a sort of image-text that gets straight to one of the book format’s most abstract possibilities: the material production of a sort of counterspace that exists beyond meaning. Interspersing transparent (Mylar) and opaque (paper) pages—a selection of the latter have been reconceived for publication here—Sabotage exploits the optical effects of superimposition while riveting the attention of its reader to the basic activity of turning pages. Isn’t this every book’s most intimate desire—to be ransacked and explored by fingers and eyes? Each turned page makes and unmakes the next, and the book remains in a state of constant optical transformation.
Stéphane Mallarmé, too, was fascinated by the fact that a book is above all an optical device—he even addressed the way a volume poses in the glamorous space of a shopwindow. With Sabotage, von Heyl invents something strange and ultimately unknowable with the purely material and energetic qualities of the book: surface and movement, ink and action. She lures the viewer into a readerly relation with her two-sided images. Frequently appropriating fragments of vintage comic books, found photographs, and other ready-made visuals, von Heyl layers and attacks these in such a way that they lose any illustrative function. Sabotage thus pursues a notion of abstraction as a process that resists representation, but that is also cunning and ironic enough to be able to picture itself—rampantly quoting aesthetic histories and styles, striking poses on the page. It is formalism exploiting its own power to leap from one content to another, reprogramming the book as a machine for producing surfaces.
Sabotage is a book that amplifies and activates everything in itself that would normally be suppressed by the dominance of text. Happily illiterate, it provokes backward and forward movement while engaging the physical presence of the reader, who is immediately implicated in von Heyl’s creative, rhythmic notion of sabotage. —JOHN KELSEY

Interior of Charline von Heyl’s studio, New York, 2008. Photo: Charline von Heyl.

THE BOOK IS CALLED SABOTAGE for several reasons. I like that it is the same word in several languages, and that it is, like desire, a generic, overused nonword that almost works like an image but actually stands for something simple and raw. It is also what I’m doing in my own work, always sabotaging my own concepts and approaches, my own linear advancement, my own visual expectations.

Sabotage is always a kind of violent change, the “sabot”—a wooden clog—thrown into the machinery, creating a new situation through disruption or destruction. It describes what happens in the book while you’re working with it or looking at it. The very simple formal device of the Mylar pages that one turns back and forth forces the mind to create and re-create abstract images, and to always wonder about what that could mean. And every Mylar page is actually two images—an image and a reverse image. So for every double page you have six images. Mylar pages do very different things when you turn them: They cover up and reveal; they add up, change, and destroy. These effects work in a kind of narrative way, as you take away and add and take away and add. It’s a book that cannot take the whole into account.

And then you’re reading backward all of a sudden. This backward movement is a very important aspect of Sabotage. Once you’ve destroyed an image, there is an urge to create a new one. And because the mind refuses to remember abstract images, you have already forgotten the image you have just destroyed, so you move backward in order to see what has happened. The first, initial movement is so fast that you don’t understand, so you want to do it again.

With the Mylar pages, the book provides a weird satisfaction of creation, because you’re not going through it looking for something—you actually create something and then you destroy it. You don’t destroy it by changing it, though; you destroy it by forgetting it. It works through repetition and surprise. And, as in my paintings, I try to use the images in such a way that you don’t actually see this happen, but your body gives you a strange feeling of recognition that you can’t name.

You turn the page and suddenly everything starts to move. It’s a movement that cannot be escaped, and the reader is going to see that one image completely transforms the other. It is an immediate Op-art sort of effect that is in the realm of physical manipulation. The eye is a part of the body that reacts in a physical way, and that’s what I am using.

THE BITS AND PIECES of imagery all come from things or works that I want in one way or the other and that do something to me. The sources are very different and don’t really matter in the end: They might be taken from a crumply Magritte drawing, or a photograph by the painter Wols, or Dino Buzzati’s 1969 comic about Orpheus—a book whose urgency and awkwardness of line I could never fake, but want.

I became interested in the myth of Orpheus in all its variations through the centuries when I read Klaus Theweleit’s Buch der Könige [Book of Kings], and I started thinking of Orpheus as the image of the artist who sabotages his own happiness and is actually incapable of being with someone. Narcissism, opportunism, the abuse of the muse, and all these “bad” qualities of the artist are figured here. So without being named, Orpheus is the sort of no-story behind Sabotage, and some of the images actually refer to that theme. But all that doesn’t matter, and just becomes part of a manic formal and purely visual universe.

It’s a little bit like concrete poetry. It sets association chains in motion through formal juxtapositions. The book has complete respect for the insanity and intelligence of association chains. I want these to be as different as possible for everybody who uses Sabotage, so that they each make their own book, completely unpredicted by me. I like the idea of images expanding into different head spaces in different ways.

I STARTED TO LEARN different printing techniques last year, and I had a lot of fun experimenting with them, creating the body of work that led to the idea for the book. I am using them now as tools for works on paper, layering different kinds of prints on top of one another, drawing on them, sticking things onto them. Usually you do not put a woodcut on top of a lithograph on top of a silk screen. I have always been a sucker for the look of prints and have often faked that look in my paintings, so maybe it makes sense that I am using printing techniques now in the same way that I paint, so that one cannot follow the steps. These steps often contradict themselves, making an image that ultimately does not reveal its roots. And that’s what makes it, in the end, something that has presence. It has a weird mood, but you cannot pin down what it is really about. With the book, the challenge was to use the form of the book and the idea of a text that never surfaces but is there as form, and to use that as a tool to insist on presence.

I want to get abstraction to a point where it screams that it is something: a representation and a thing. I am interested in a kind of iconic statement that, in the moment where you actually try to read it, refuses exactly that and insists on having nothing to say. It insists on being abstract, like a painting that is almost something else, but that something cannot be named. To do that with a book seems to me the ultimate challenge. A book that mimics the feeling of a story without ever delivering; a picture book that refuses to illustrate but is made entirely of centerfolds. —CHARLINE VON HEYL