Too Little and Too Much, All the Time

Charline von Heyl and the Life of Painting

I find an irresistible pull to the state of immanence. Think of Wile E. Coyote, always on the brink, shooting across the mesa in pursuit of the Road Runner, then teetering on the edge of cognition as the canyon floor beckons below. Charline von Heyl creates an interesting tension between accident and intention in her work and where Wile E. goes over, she pulls back, teasing the line between the desirable accident and the control she finely maintains. We watch Wile E. over and over in countless cartoons, hearts thumping on his behalf, enjoying the anticipatory “what if” as his hapless momentum carries him into a temporary oblivion. Von Heyl, however, holding to control reels it in and the work is complete. The teetering keeps us breathless, keeps her engaged, keeps the paintings alive.

Night Doctor, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 82.5 x 68 inches. All images courtesy Petzel Gallery, New York.

In the interview which follows, the question is asked, “I look at your work and I know it’s not abstract because it is something. I haven’t found the language to describe what’s there.” In an earlier conversation with writer Kaja Silverman (Charline von Heyl, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2011) von Heyl makes reference to certain philosophers—she names Maurice Blanchot and Martin Heidegger—who speak in the way her paintings do. She talks about their generating an image of an idea which she says “provokes an emotional gut reaction of the mind.” It’s no more paradoxical to think of the gut voicing the mind or the head stating the experience of emotions than Charline von Heyl’s saying that what she wants a painting to act out is a self-conscious urgency. To the philosophers’ language conjuring an image of an idea, von Heyl applies the emotional state of pathos, an oddly enlivening notion. At her core of being is a feeling of falseness which, in the conversation with Kaja Silverman, she says is the “one truly existential sense of self left, or possible.” I read the feeling of falseness as a contingency which means its obverse is also possible. If it’s wavering between what is and is not, between real and its alternate state, it is the either/or fulcrum which allows immanence to slip in. Her paintings give me that. This is where they are abstract—abstractions of ideas and states made visible.

She answers the question posed earlier in the interview below: “You are aware of the fact that you are looking at something that you cannot describe: that you can only understand or not understand. So you are arriving at a knowledge that cannot be translated into words.”

In a new painting, mural, frieze, billboard—horizontal like a landscape seen from a moving train and titled Interventionist Demonstration (Why-A-Duck?), in spray paint and acrylic on linen, we have 17 feet of urgent activity in an unaccustomed palette, with the exception of Untitled (1/1/06) (aka: Greetings), 2006, which also used chartreuse—the colour of absinthe, pink and some muddier greens. In Why-A-Duck? there is also a small orange duck partly occluded by two spheres overriding his space, a six-armed, irregular star holding centre court and patterned perhaps like a giraffe or a tight tiger, and very many horizontal bars, which Corbett vs. Dempsey, the Chicago gallery where the work was installed in early summer, 2014, describe as “bumper-sticker-like banners,” most carrying text rendered in bold black lines. The duck beaks up to one of them on which a decorative pattern rises, a dark blue serpent dotted at each dip in the same clear blue. But that’s far from all there is to see. Language is everywhere, but not carrying information to be apprehended in words. Only DUST ON A WHITE SHIRT could be discerned. There are words, maybe slogans, descriptors but not language. Also a bar with a stretch mouse, like a hieroglyph on an Egyptian tomb, a coyote or an aggravated ground squirrel, a band of paw prints—maybe, two sets of lilac locomotives rushing by across a desert plain, the ultimate in horizontality and pinning it all down, if that can be said with finality about any of von Heyl’s work, are right-angled interventions like a draftsman’s T-square.

This long painting was accompanied by 40 small, black and white, acrylic and charcoal works, 12 by 9 inches on cardboard panels which speak as though they were written, and a catalogue laced with excerpts from the George Herriman comic strip, Krazy Kat, which ran in American newspapers for 24 years starting in 1920. It was much loved by writers and presidents alike for its presence as an artwork and its intellectual acuity and wit. Three characters played for the duration: the affable Krazy Kat—not definitively girl cat or boy cat, the intense Ignatz Mouse and the dutiful police dog, Offisa Pupp, parties to an unresolved love triangle. While an equilateral triangle can rest solidly on any of its sides, it teeters when only on a point and the relationship of three (two to one or two and one) is destabilized—an attractive sway or swing for an artist who works with intention and courts accident.

When you are confronted with a 17-foot-long painting you read it in whatever way you would read that span. From the moon, you could see it all at once; nearer, you pick your spots, you focus on details. Von Heyl thinks often about the viewer. She hopes each will learn something about themself, not about her. For an artist who identifies an interest in control this is a generous giving-over, allowing the assembly and completion to be individual. She said, “I believe that in the end painting is not the sum of its parts; it lives on as an offering to choose from; by choosing you make your own painting,” and she adds that the apprehension is always of a detail, a part, an atmosphere.

Frenhoferin, 2009, acrylic, oil and charcoal on linen, 86 x 82 inches.

It’s Vot’s Behind Me That I Am (Krazy Kat) is a large painting, almost seven by six feet, from 2010, which carries the unarticulated narrative of its title. A three-dimensional brick painted in reverse perspective moves toward the viewer like it did toward the head of Offisa Pupp for 24 years. Behind von Heyl, as for us all, is the past, our history which is also our present. If it’s a knock in the head from behind, for so long as it hovers we won’t know, but we’ll be thinking about it now.

What is also the past for Charline von Heyl is the state of perpetual play that was her childhood condition. She told us, “to paint, for me, has always been about the possibility of forgetting myself”—that timeless, endless present in which children are engaged. There were no contingencies then, just a state of pure feeling, “this initial moment of sincerity and freedom”—a medium, in the sense of suspension and its attendant youthful rapture, which she seeks to recreate with every painting.

If she allows or hopes that each viewer creates the painting, she also says the paintings make themselves. She’s grappling here with the moment (again, that immanence) when work moves over from fine and competent design to art. When is it that this action, which is troubling for her in its market consequences, takes place? What impels it? Her buttress against her own questioning is her rigorous eye trained and narrowed on authenticity and the awareness of what she identifies as the issue of surplus value. Where is it that it happens, at which point does it take place? If she blinks she misses it because she asserts that the painting makes itself.

If you were to ask—as critics, readers, viewers all do in front of a painting by von Heyl—under what conditions, in which situation, to what entity would this acutely intelligent, alert, informed artist cede control—it would be in giving over to the painting itself. There’s the bell-clear expression of a painter’s morality in this.

Charline von Heyl lives and works in New York and Marfa, Texas with her husband, the painter Christopher Wool. This interview was conducted in her New York studio on June 18, 2014.

To read the complete interview with Charline von Heyl, order Issue 131 or subscribe.

Volume 33, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #131, published September 2014.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.