German-born Charline von Heyl has a predilection for blunt, semiabstract painting. Her work is largely self-referential and has an autonomous air. It almost feels as though it doesn’t need the attention or approval of a viewer—and the first impulse of many a viewer may be to return the favor. Her esthetic is fraught with paradox. Paint handling and color is too one thing or another (tentative, dry, dull, bright), and design decisions are either a twist on a cliché or so odd as to be innovative. (I mean all these remarks as compliments.)

The nine recent (2009 or ’10) paintings she showed at Petzel were large (nearly 7 feet at their greatest length), and mainly oil and acrylic on linen and/or canvas. Black Stripe Mojo features a centrally placed, chimeralike critter painted in a mottled ocher with black spots. Its contours are complex and the spots seem random; they do not help clarify the form’s vaguely suggestive parts. This uncomfortable abstract amalgamation is placed on a ground of black and white stripes. The only other painting with elements identifiable as figurative was Woman #2, a black silhouette indicated as female by a number of broad curves. Two stacked circles stand for her face/head. The background consists of pale pink and blue diamond shapes on white, a pattern that infiltrates the figure, transforming her into a harlequin of sorts. She seems to be gesturing, as if making a toast.

Von Heyl stops short of definition and often plays a reversal of figure-ground relationships against color rhyming, making for abrupt changes in possible readings. In Pink Vendetta, an allover washy pink ground gives way to darker and thicker pink gestural marks that frame a central area. This consists of a carefully painted Kandinsky-like explosion of overlapping triangles and what look like architectural drawing tools. The color in this area mimics, in dirtied tones, the scrubby pink acrylic ground. The whole is vignetted by a zigzagging angular white border that was clearly painted last, over all the rest. Such visually confounding methods bring to mind the knowing, stylized work of Carrie Moyer, as well as the unbridled experimentation and loopy allusions of Dona Nelson. Von Heyl’s vocabulary of counterintuitive, sidestepping, neo-punk moves has long been in sync with a lexicon of contemporary painting from Berlin to Brooklyn. It is to her credit that the work remains wry and even ferocious.

Photo: Charline von Heyl: Woman #2, 2009, acrylic, oil and charcoal on linen, 82 by 78 inches; at Friedrich Petzel.