Tweaking the Canon

Charline Von Heyl brings her signature to an encyclopedic review of Modernists

Charline Von Heyl’s exhibition of new paintings at Friedrich Petzel Gallery dives headlong into the language of painting; the canonical issues around originality, appropriation, and “signature style,” as well as the uneasy negotiation between representation and abstraction are all given their due. Cycling inventively through a range of historical painting strategies, Von Heyl’s brainy paintings and meaty black and white collages provide optical pleasure, visceral dissonance, and plenty of food for thought.

At first glance, the paintings look awkwardly gestural, perhaps the work of an adoring but inept art student. Upon closer examination, the sampling of mark-making by Von Heyl, which range from drawing with paint, marker, and oil stick to pouring, dragging, staining and rubbing, becomes the subject of these works. The tough, worked-over surfaces are often surprisingly beautiful: in one instance, an ink wash over oil paint becomes a black and orange fireball of craquelure. Figure/ground relationships fluctuate between those that are mundane and serviceable to others that are entrancingly airy, drawing our attention to another hallmark of Modernist abstract painting, the magical “push-pull” of space that painting is capable of.

From harsh to luminous, each painting possesses its own specific light and palette, thereby converting Von Heyl’s encyclopedic display of historical referents into the artist’s “signature style.” The active quotation of painters, from Willem De Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein to David Reed, provides a center and links her immediately to conceptual painters of her own generation, such as Fiona Rae. Most significantly, Von Heyl quotes Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, towering giants and fellow Germans who cast a long shadow over all painters, no matter where they hail from.

Perhaps because the collages are small works on paper and employ a limited yet connected palette, in them Von Heyl most directly and elegantly reveals the traditional nature of her pursuit. While the fractured space of collage provides an ideal site for the deconstruction of representation, these combinations of cut-up xeroxes, ink, and surreal, cartoony drawing are perhaps the most formally cohesive moments in the work. And it’s this cohesion that satisfies the viewer and grounds the paintings.

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