Charline von Heyl, untitled (detail), 2003, photocopy, collage, and ink on paper, fifteen elements, each 24 x 19".

Charline von Heyl, untitled (detail), 2003, photocopy, collage, and ink on paper, fifteen elements, each 24 x 19".

Charline von Heyl

Charline von Heyl, untitled (detail), 2003, photocopy, collage, and ink on paper, fifteen elements, each 24 x 19".

In the run-up to what promises to be a marathon year for Charline von Heyl (a major survey of her work is currently on view at the Tate Liverpool), a recent exhibition of a decade’s worth of her paintings and works on paper at the Philadelphia ICA gave visitors a sampling of what is surely one of the more challenging, complex—and enjoyable—bodies of contemporary abstract painting. For von Heyl, painting is as alive as ever; it is the medium’s fecundity in the here and now that interests her most. If the burden of modernism is at issue in her work, it is as a storehouse of pictorial tactics, no longer a nightmare—not even a burden. Equivocation and self-sabotage are the motivating forces of von Heyl’s practice, which proceeds as a two-step of gesture and counter-gesture, each maneuver feeding on the previous one without negating it.

The seventeen paintings presented in Philadelphia this past fall (and which go on view March 21 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston) were made between 2001 and 2011, the majority having been produced in the past few years. Complementing the paintings were three suites of works on paper (dating from 2003, 2005, and 2011, respectively), which provided a rich account of the German-born artist’s breakthrough decade. These collage-based drawings and prints refer to the world of the studio, but also to the laptop: Von Heyl treats the blank page as a site of pictorial manipulation, applying spray paint and ink as though rendering so many digital “effects.” Photocopied material can be found interspersed throughout these works, some of it culled from earlier pieces, some borrowed from other artists—for example, Dino Buzzati’s Poema a fumetti (Poem Strip), a 1969 graphic-novel version of the Orpheus myth. Yet von Heyl attaches no special meaning to these acts of appropriation, assigning equal status to drawing and photocopying. Fragments coexist with fragments; artifice is all.

In the era of Photoshop, could it possibly be otherwise? Von Heyl’s practice of cutting across pictorial strata closely approximates—intentionally or not—the ontology of digitally manipulated images, the layers of which only gel together in the final, “flattened” picture. Yet this moment of flattening never arrives in von Heyl’s work: Layers sit incommensurably atop one another, confronting viewers with an ever-unstable field of possible foregrounds and backgrounds. With Solo Dolo, 2010, for example, von Heyl employs this tactic directly, superimposing a layer of two-toned diamonds and pink-and-orange mesh over a first layer of undulating ribbons and dirty flesh tones. Or at least, that is how the picture presents itself at first glance. Careful viewers will find that von Heyl has painstakingly muddled the relationship between the layers, introducing bluffs and reversals at every turn. Similar moments of instability are evident even in some of the artist’s most vaporous canvases—Poodle Pit, 2006, for example, whose jewel-colored hot spots seem to glow from within a fecal fog, until one realizes that these are simply patches of red, blue, and green that had been left uncovered when the top layer was applied.

But layered surfaces are not the endgame for von Heyl; at her best, she is a formidable figure painter, too—though she employs none of the usual designators of personhood. Here, lifelikeness follows the substitutive logic of graffiti tags, online avatars, and other such pictures that stand for an absent so-and-so. For von Heyl, every canvas is a “somebody”—somebody singular, but also “nobody” (and no body) in particular. Her process of making pictures is akin to conjuring familiars, a tendency most evident in the Philadelphia ICA show’s handful of clearly figurative works, such as P. and Nuit de Paris (both 2008), but no less so in those paintings whose style of existence is more a matter of surface-level patterning, as with her glorious Lazybone Shuffle, 2010. Seen together, von Heyl’s works form an exuberant collective, one held intact by a host of graphic affinities (e.g., yellow paint, saw-toothed edges, chevron stripes). If there is a politics to be drawn from these works, we might look toward Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, its mood carnivalesque, its agents multitudinous.

Daniel Marcus