New York

Charline von Heyl

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

It’s been roughly ten years since Charline von Heyl started showing her abstract paintings—first in Germany in the early ’90s and by mid-decade in New York. Even though her oil and mixed-media works on canvas have developed considerably, they retain their tentativeness and, overall, their unevenness. Doubt, it would seem, is an ever-present condition in her art. Is this a virtue, or does it diminish the work? How is the credibility of the better work affected by those paintings that ask how much “ugly” they can take and still remain viable? This exhibition, von Heyl’s best to date, offers no resolution to the questions her paintings seem intentionally to provoke.

Here von Heyl presented ten paintings, each measuring seventy-eight by eighty-two inches or vice versa—big enough to push doubt to the fore. Squarely situated in the anti-aesthetic tradition, they come with the “bad painting” pedigree that found such favor in Germany in the ’80s, chiefly through the work of Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. It should be noted that women painters weren’t exactly welcomed into those ranks with open arms. One wonders if the paintings’ effeminate stains and smears, hesitancy, stops and starts, lack of bravura and decisiveness aren’t a methodology of resistance, and an artful one at that.

In several of the new paintings, the appearance of mess and mistakes prevails. Von Heyl gets up the left half of Untitled (Orange) (all works 2003) with a variety of washes, doodles, and leafy effects in green, orange, and blue; on the right side, everything collapses into nondescript shades of dirty white and gray, with lines too loose to define form, dripping and draining off the bottom edge of the canvas. It’s poetic (and humorous) to think she deserted the painting in midstream. Though it’s just a conceit, the idea of abandonment reverberates in the look of the painting, with its two sides at odds with one another, like some “before and after” scenario.

One can appreciate how this embedded theatricality could be taken for a sign of honesty and sincerity. (If that’s actually the case, von Heyl’s downright confessional!) And yet, as if to ward off that misconception in advance, she varies her paintings within any one exhibition (including this one) so often as to render her “style” suspect. There were too many paintings here; but while the overinstallation did draw attention to the misdemeanor of flashing too much stylistic variance and influence, it also added a subtle layer of retinal confusion.

In I Am Monkeys, one of two canvases worked in tones of orange and rusty brown, von Heyl scrubs dry brown paint lightly over the surface, then rubs the canvas clean with thinner, creating buoyant forms that seem to percolate up from the lower depths. In Floor 5 #11, preliminary scouring gestures are overlaid and entangled with transparent, washed-out, Rustoleum-colored forms that look as if they were apprehended just shy of achieving figural definition.

In these and many other pairs, we see theme and variation, but perhaps we see also (perhaps too much) von Heyl’s desire to explain. Maybe that’s why, in addition to the paintings, she showed for the first time a series of mixed-media works on paper. In their marks, cuts, tears, and seams we recognize the gestures that animate her paintings; yet the drawings are engorged with buried heads and body parts, animal and landscape motifs, travel and decor imagery—all evidence of how much von Heyl starts with and how little is left by the time she turns to paint.

Jan Avgikos