Charline von Heyl says she wants to invent an image that has not yet been seen or cannot be named. That desire is so common within the art world it’s a cliche, at least as it pertains to originality; but even without reading the press release a viewer has the sense that her paintings were made with those goals in mind.
At least this is how I felt as the dread of trying to explain why I liked her paintings loomed. I write about whatever I want in this column, so there’s no reason I had to review her show at Friedrich Petzel, but my visceral response to the work was strong enough that I knew I wouldn’t be doing my job if I avoided the challenge. The problem is that these eight, large abstract works inspire head nods, neck craning, and monosyllabic response more than they do exposition. That’s the way some abstraction works, but it makes it harder to talk about.
A self-titled exhibition, the 49-year-old painter’s sixth solo show at Petzel presents a restrained body of work, at least compared to her more gestural exhibition of 2006. In this show, no painting provides a focal point, but I took to a black and white vertically striped painting overlaid with what appeared to be a pack of yellow tiger cats titled “Black Stripe Mojo.” Bits of pink—from what I assume is the animal’s ear—show up throughout the work, as does the strange appearance of a human hand, each of which add a delicacy to the image (painted references to soft kitten parts tend to do this). The painting’s unusual combination of static flat pattern with organic malleable forms is immediately compelling and beautiful.
On an adjacent wall the bloody pink star shape in “Pink Vendetta” picks up the pink flecks in “Black Stripe Mojo.” The work itself leans a little more toward Abstract Expressionist-decorative than it does violence. I’m not a fan of this aspect of the work—it’s a little cheesy—but paired with the neighboring black painting, “Woman 2”, “Vendetta” is saved. The dark figurative shape in this work tones down the pink painting beside it.
Another good pairing is a purple, ochre and black abstract expressionist painting with stripes and a painting resembling a Mary Heilmann-esque checkered kitchen set. I liked that in both paintings a repetition of motif created a visual rhythm, even though the works seemingly had nothing to do with each other stylistically. This stands in contrast to two wormy square paintings in a corner, which look like variations on each other. These paintings are charmingly awkward within a show so resolved that it verges on becoming flat.
As a whole the paintings are well contained within the canvas, which keeps the ab-ex brushwork from becoming too cliched (it’s not particularly in vogue these days), even if control is another painter’s trope. But part of what makes these paintings so fresh is von Heyl’s willingness to explore painting techniques without reservation. She’s not creating paintings that have never been seen before or cannot be named—it’s an impossible goal even acknowledging that abstract painting is difficult to discuss—but the work looks like only she could have made them. It sounds insignificant, but painters rarely achieve such success.