“Schadenfreude,” the German word meaning “pleasure taken from another’s misfortune,” came inescapably to mind upon encountering Blacksmile (2013), the first of 14 paintings in Charline von Heyl’s recent exhibition. Indeed, the term points to the intricate syntax of the German-born artist’s best work.
Known for being stylistically idiosyncratic, von Heyl subverts our expectations both of the nature of painting and the nature of her painting, constantly undermining conventional aesthetic judgment. Whether a particular painting pleases or annoys, she forces us to scrutinize the validity of our criteria.
Blacksmile is straightforward but ambiguous on every level. Our initial impression is of coal-smudged geometry on an ocher ground. The upper black corners frame a curved yellow form that is bitten into below by a smutchy hybrid shape, consisting of the Cupid’s bow of an upper lip and an eccentric rectangle: the black smile of the title. The curved yellow form could also be seen as a blonde coif surrounding a blindfolded face. The colors and formal uncertainty create a sense of goofy menace, evoking a jack-o’-lantern, with a nod to the Batman logo. Perhaps Blacksmile embodies the schadenfreude von Heyl experiences at our difficulty in navigating the mass of contradictions of her paintings.
The ambiguities of figure and ground, abstraction and representation, soft and hard, goofy and menacing contained in Blacksmile are familiar confusions and easily assimilated through the pleasure of her pellucid paint handling. These same sets of uncertainties animate paintings like Night Doctor (2013). At the bottom of a loosely painted pink canvas, a series of black parabolic forms can be seen as a rubber-gloved hand pawing uneasy flesh.
But then there is Bois—Tu De La Bier? (2012). Like Blacksmile, it is yellow and black, but here a flat, glowing primrose lager provides the ground for scratchy black lines, which limn the borders and protrude into the center like a yapping dog tied to a tree. Bois—Tu consists of only acrylic paint, whereas usually von Heyl softens the hard acrylic underpainting with oil colors.
The title could imply, “Do you have a taste for a dry, bitter painting?,” as if one’s aesthetic were a mere physiological preference. For von Heyl, the fingernails-on-blackboard mood conjured by this painting is simply the result of one of her arbitrary stylistic choices and is no more peculiar than any other. But this work also highlights a struggle between artist and viewer over the limitations of a painter’s investigations.
After repeated viewing, certain paintings in the show simply seemed aesthetically insufficient. We’re not engaged on enough levels by the pat iconic resolutions of paintings like Bois—Tu or Skull (2012), in which a densely brushed dark field is resolved into a skull shape by the hard-edge overpainting of an opaque white and yellow ground. The dialogue of such paintings with the more complex works felt superficial; they seem to have been created to provide a foil, rather than as part of a complete proposition.
Von Heyl’s best works navigate painting’s twin conditions of arbitrariness and specificity, and establish a pictorial space that rejects dogmatic flatness. They do not use representation to describe the world, or even to depict the artist’s relationship to it. Instead, representation establishes the mood of her own problematic relationship to painting, its history and the people who view it.
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.