New York

Charline von Heyl, Big Zipper, 2011, acrylic and oil on canvas, 86 x 78".

Charline von Heyl, Big Zipper, 2011, acrylic and oil on canvas, 86 x 78".

Charline von Heyl

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

Charline von Heyl, Big Zipper, 2011, acrylic and oil on canvas, 86 x 78".

A painter’s painter if ever there was one, Charline von Heyl has said so many strange and beautiful things about what it means to look at a work of art that standing in front of her own pictures can feel like a good challenge or a daunting test. This is an artist who considers the act of looking an adventure, who credits art historians for thinking with their eyes, and who says that when a work of art does something different or something new, “you can’t stop looking because there is something you want to find out, that you want to understand.” She adds, “Good paintings have this tantalizing quality.” When you turn your back on them, “they leave a hole in the mind, a longing.”

As cerebral as she is prolific, von Heyl is an impassioned defender of her practice and a staggeringly methodical maker of marks in the studio. She is deadly serious about the process of painting and about the ability of an abstract image to function as a fact—not as an illustration, representation, or evocation but with the force of the thing itself, be it a feeling that comes on sharp and sudden, an emotion that seeps in and aches, or an idea that generates an entire architecture of forms to be understood, and then only fleetingly, as the scaffolding falls away.

For her seventh solo show at the Petzel Gallery, von Heyl struck out in so many different directions that one could easily have imagined that the fourteen paintings on view, produced over the past three years, were the works of at least a dozen different artists. She seems wholly unconcerned with creating a coherent body of work. And yet, in a recent interview with the art historian Kaja Silverman, von Heyl said that while she is “legions,” she is also “the boss.” Indeed, across these fourteen canvases, a vocabulary of common, clearly directed strategies emerged, like themes repeated at multiple speeds and appearing in different intensities.

Collapsing patterns and wobbly grids hold together the compositions of both Big Zipper, 2011, a gorgeous acrylic-and-oil-on-canvas that looks like a pair of textile motifs trying to devour or wage war with each other, and Guitar Gangster, 2013, with its trickling drips and thin washes of paint appearing to slip through a tangle of broad, wide curves and an orderly row of black and white tiles. A sinister shadow of a hand creeps up almost comically from the bottom edge of Night Doctor, 2013. Carlotta, 2013, plays with portraiture; Slow Tramp, 2012, with an invented alphabet; Pancalist, 2012, with fish scales; Miserabilism #1, 2012, with prison drawings and the Bauhaus; and Vase with Flowers, 2012, with von Heyl’s rather surprising sense of humor. Sustaining the unity of these otherwise disparate works are the formal elements—gestures, scratches, erasures, underpaintings, and peekaboo shocks of color—that recur from one work to the next. These paintings are like memories at work, or thoughts in action. The layers of color, shape, and line are constantly shifting. Yet they are imminently capable of lodging themselves in the minds of viewers who take the time to look, and to linger.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie