I first came across Charline von Heyl’s paintings in the mid-’90s. She had moved to New York from Germany in 1994, having had her first New York solo show at Friedrich Petzel Gallery. After this initial signal impression, whenever I saw an oddly compelling painting, but was at a loss to name the artist, it turned out to be one of Charline von Heyl’s.
Her work is indeed difficult to pin down. She vigorously resists a signature style, but persists in establishing a distinct and inclusive approach. Art-historical references such as Synthetic Cubism and Abstract Expressionism are present, not as appropriations, but as part of a freewheeling spirit, playing on the effects and characteristics of these canonical references. Like a writer who invents individual characters in order to bring variegated aspects to a narrative through the depth of different personalities and their relationships to each other, Von Heyl structures her paintings by presenting sets of unstable tendencies and making surprising juxtapositions and interactions. Still, her work is resolutely abstract and non-narrative. There may be ghosts of recognizable objects, but the viewer is never asked to make comparisons between the abstract and the representational. Rather, she seems to ask, how useful can such distinctions be when our experiences are ever more complex and convoluted, and are not reducible to singularities?
Von Heyl’s paintings, works on paper, and prints take cues from high art, popular culture, comics, and design, as well as from the slipstream of cultural oddities found around eccentric Internet sites. But what makes her work abstract is its unnamable or unidentifiable aspect. Her output can be considered authoritative and idealistic, simultaneously playful and irresponsible. It is these contradictions that give her work an urgency that remains oblique and an intensity that is open-ended, enabling the viewer to experience paradoxical sensations. Von Heyl’s work stimulates the viewer with inconsistencies such as the sensuous and the rigorous, or pleasure and discomfort, resulting in highly idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and imaginative works. She is a painter who is committed to renewing painting, never remaining in the comfort zone.
For our interview, we met at her studio on 15th Street, where large, stretched canvases in different stages of development were lined and stacked against all of the walls. In another room, the mock-up of her upcoming monograph lined another wall, while drawings and more paintings were stacked everywhere. Like her paintings, she is forthright, full of humor, and uniquely articulate.
Shirley Kaneda That was really nice to see the mock-up of your book.
Charline von Heyl It’s a monograph that’s going to come out this year at Les Presses du Réel, the publishing company of Le Consortium in France. I’m very happy about it. And putting it together made me look at all my paintings again, which has been interesting.
SK When you look at all your images together, you can really see the diversity in your work. Each painting is quite different from the next. You’ve mentioned that your shows tend to come across like group shows, but I see a constant vocabulary that you’re involved in. Looking at the earlier images that you just showed me, I see you move around within your own history, bringing back things from your past to the present quite fluidly.
CVH Yeah, I am kind of an ahistorical person. I’m not that interested in the idea of development or a linear history and my taste has actually not changed much. But considering the entirety of my work made me realize that there have obviously been steps, and that I am clearly coming full circle now.
SK Some artists do change their styles fairly radically. I don’t know if it comes from this modernist idea of always undoing what you did before so you can start something new. Do you like to start in that tabula-rasa way?
CVH Yes, I do. But it has more to do with my absolute lack of visual memory. I’ve never quite understood if it’s a weakness or a strength, and it doesn’t matter. My mind works like a surveillance camera on a loop, constantly registering and erasing. I am so dependent on what I see at the moment of seeing that, very early on, I was probably trying to create a surplus value for that moment—in order to have something more to look at.
SK Seeing is kind of beleaguered now. There’s been a lot of theory that establishes a point of view that is antivision, or antiseeing. It threatens what is valuable about art.
CVH Yeah, I think that’s right. There is definitely this fear of being visually manipulated, which by its nature is also antipainting. A lot of people in the art world are actually unlearning to see. What I would want my paintings to do is to break that barrier, to impose themselves and insist on being seen despite that fear. But that is almost impossible.
SK How do you start your paintings? Where does the vocabulary come from?
CVH I just start them. Here’s a white canvas, and I’m going to put something on it. It always feels like a really ridiculous thing to do. (laughter) But it also feels like the ultimate violation and it takes up a huge amount of energy.
SK So, it is intuitive?
CVH It is completely intuitive. A color, a movement, whatever. Very much depending on the mood du jour. It’s like a writer putting the white sheet in and starting to write something. You know that you’re going to transform it and transform it, but you just have to start somehow. Rarely does it happen that this first move becomes the finished painting.
SK It’s like turning on the faucet?
CVH Exactly. I have never started with an idea. I’m certainly not interested in depicting anything, but neither am I interested in abstraction for its own sake. It’s important not to forget where I come from. Abstraction was absolutely nonexistent in my immediate surroundings in Germany in the ‘80s. The positions that I was confronted with were of Sigmar Polke, Joerg Immendorff, Martin Kippenberger, and Albert Oehlen’s. It was a heavily male, very jokey, and ironic stance toward painting. Anarchistic and also quite arrogant.
CVH Definitely. (laughter) But they were very critical of German painting, especially Neo-Expressionism. All those neo-primitive painters from Berlin, like Salomé or Rainer Fetting, were looked upon as the enemy. Neo-Expressionism was seen as a signifier of stupidity, and the antidote was irony, mostly in the form of really stupid jokes. I liked the work, I liked the guys, but it wasn’t something that I could, or wanted to, do. But I loved the idea that you could be that aggressive and cool via painting! So I started out as a painter in an environment where painting was something very powerful and I actually never lost that feeling. I never doubted painting.
SK That’s probably why there’s both authority and humor in your paintings, especially in your last show. There’s playfulness and daring, but you seem conscious of not making paintings based on that. They don’t come off jokey. They almost fight each other.
CVH Yes, I know, there is something irritating about the paintings in that way, and it comes directly out of my history. I would call it the cringe factor. And what made you cringe was procedure and material and imagery, not jokes or literal irony. The fact that the paintings made you cringe was their power. I tried to get there with the most awkward materials, goofy tricks and techniques, and with the dumbest messages. Always forcing things together that could not possibly work. It felt like bending bones. And I think that’s still in there even though my work has changed. But it wasn’t about being painterly or unpainterly, or abstract or representational; those questions just didn’t exist.
SK I never thought of your work as antipainterly. It embraces painting quite genuinely. Does your background have anything to do with this interest in paradox? You lived in Germany until when?
CVH Until ’94.
SK When you think of the inherent parts of German culture, there’s Ludwig van Beethoven—
CVH He comes from the town that I grew up in, Bonn. I had my first date at the statue of Beethoven. (laughter)
SK There’s a kind of monumentality to a lot of German culture.
CVH Yeah, I definitely have that side. My mother is French, though, and I guess that’s where my interest in language and surface comes from. But there is indeed this whole German pathos thing too, even though it’s more Romantic than Wagnerian. I have this weird, detached love for feelings. And I want that to happen in my paintings as well; that’s another paradox. My paintings are often aggressively distant, though, refusing to play together with the beholder; they rather play by themselves in this self-satisfied way. That can be off-putting, I guess.
SK I think that one’s background, whether you are conscious of it or not, comes into what you make. Your experience has to have influenced you.
CVH It took me a while to realize that you have to play with what you’ve got. On the other hand, I’ve been saved by my incapability of playing with others. (laughter)
SK I like what you said earlier, before we started recording, about the audience: when they begin to understand your work, they think that you have finally understood what you are doing.
CVH Yeah, the way people say, “Now this show really is a breakthrough!” Just because they have understood something at last, they think it’s me who finally understood what my paintings are about. (laughter) And it’s funny, people have said it about every show I’ve done. But in all fairness, I did make a statement with my last show by excluding more atmospheric paintings, and that did look quite different.
SK Interesting artists want to empower the audience so that they can understand the work in their own capacity, instead of by reading some manifesto. In fact, you don’t have to know very much in order to experience art.
CVH Absolutely, never underestimate your audience. I’ve been humbled again and again by reactions that I didn’t expect. I wouldn’t even say that there is such a thing as “the audience.” Painters are going to look at my paintings in a very different way than nonpainters, and even the painters are totally divided. One obvious problem, and there’s no escaping it, is that we are operating in a closed universe of connoisseurship.
SK Connoisseurship is really problematic now, because it’s not the same as it used to be 50 years ago.
CVH I actually insist on that somewhat anachronistic term, for better or worse. As an artist you are a connoisseur—first of all of your own work, but also as a member of a group with exclusive knowledge. There is no way around it.
SK I wouldn’t mind if connoisseurship had more weight in contemporary art even though it’s obviously problematic in this age of the “post-postmodern.” Let’s face it, there are specialists in all fields.
CVH I’m always delighted when people who rarely write about painting are overcoming their fear and plunge into their speculations. What comes out is often very smart and idiosyncratic and something I would not have thought of in a million years. It really adds something to the work, and I’m grateful for that.
SK That requires looking and thinking—
CVH Yeah, but a lot of people can look and think. Some are just afraid to do it, because of all the political stances about one thing being the right thing to say and another being the wrong thing.
SK Yeah, it’s very predictable. I find it’s usually the artists who are willing to stick their necks out.
CVH I do think it is changing, though. I mean, there is still a lot of the more literal and often tautological work out there that makes certain curators and critics feel safe, but I think it’s running out of steam because it has been turned into product in the exact same way that painting has. So a lot of those positions are becoming hypocritical, not to mention repetitive. And to think and write about painting is also a possibility to reinvestigate and redefine the basics, which each generation should do.
SK There seems to be a renewed interest in abstract painting. But this return might only be a reaction to the years of figuration; the pendulum swinging from one side to the other as it always does. Or, I wonder if people are sick of irony, trickery, and the one-liners represented by a lot of art from the last 20 years, and are more interested in abstract ideas again?
CVH One reason that abstraction is going to be relevant is that by its nature it is more linked to design, and the problem of design as, or versus, art is at the core of everything right now. It’s almost the main question: how to get a painting beyond design? Why get a painting beyond design, that question is also still out there, but I don’t find it so interesting personally. Representation goes beyond design via psychology and narrative. But to get there without depictions, without representational images, which I just see as words—that is really hard. It is the sweeter victory and more surprising in the end. But I’m not dogmatic about it. In the rare instance that images want to pop up, I let them. I just never put them in intentionally.
SK You’re considered an abstract painter. But your paintings consist of figuration and—
CVH —I know, if I hear the explanation that I’m hovering between abstraction and representation one more time I’m going to go on a killing spree.
SK (laughter) I understand. But I think that’s one of the easiest ways to interact with your paintings.
CVH Sure. And the laziest. It is terribly difficult to write about painting, especially abstract painting. It’s a slippery entity that’s hard to catch with words because in its essence it doesn’t want to be described. That’s actually a great challenge, and I love to invite people to the chase.
SK It’s very difficult to establish the codes of painting and abstraction in particular because they are so nuanced. As you said, it’s slippery, but, in a way, that’s the point. It really focuses on the fact that language is insufficient for painting.
CVH I guess that’s where the underlying anger out there comes from. It’s a win-win situation for painting in the end, and maybe people who write about it kind of know that they’re ultimately at a loss, so it’s an understandable resentment. However, there is no reason for painting to stop just because it’s difficult to write about it!
SK Has living in New York influenced your work?
CVH Well, there is an American tendency to insist on abstract painting being cool and loose, mainly as a reaction against the formalism of postwar American abstraction, all the while still being part of it in the best way. That was very seductive before I realized that loose doesn’t necessarily mean free. But it did add something to my visual vocabulary.
SK These two unfinished paintings here in your studio are definitely what we call hard-edge.
CVH They are, but this one doesn’t go beyond that, and that’s why it’s at a dead end. My paintings usually hide their traces and their own history. They have weird shifts where you don’t expect them, and at their best they will have an auratic presence despite themselves. It’s not about mystifying anything; it’s about lengthening the time of pleasure. Or torture.
SK They’re sort of opposite sides of the same coin. But I like these paintings. Compared to your other paintings, they are much more resolved.
CVH Well, they actually beautifully illustrate the dilemma I was just talking about: when does an abstract painting go beyond design? And I don’t think I’m talking about inspiration right now. I’m really obsessed with that question. As long as I know what I’m doing, I design. There is no way around it. I can get beyond it only in the unknown. But I do know more and more, and the design gets better and better. For instance, these paintings, they look so simple and satisfying, but I know how I did it and that makes me unhappy. I don’t want to make the painting, I want the painting to invent itself and surprise me. That surprise is the surplus value that makes it all worth it for me. I cannot design art, or let’s say I don’t want to. But I can force myself into that concentrated mindspace that is just looking and goes beyond thinking. Then I will be able to add a layer to the painting that contradicts it, but makes it. And then another. A kind of visual mindfuck. That is ultimately what I want the beholder to experience. I guess it is an upgraded cringe—from visceral to visual.
SK Yeah, I agree. It’s the surplus that matters. Your method of fusing different styles and forms looks to be appropriation on the surface. Many artists will readily admit that they’re not interested in making anything original today.
CVH I never saw myself as appropriating styles. I’m using different effects and procedures, and different materials.
It is more about surface than content. Sometimes, rarely, do I use a style—for example, I’ve used Cubism for its seductive quality, for how it sucks the eye in and changes the speed in a painting. I haven’t been worried about creating a so-called signature style, although I think my paintings are quite recognizable. And I certainly wouldn’t mind them being original.
SK You once mentioned your desire to make something that you haven’t seen before. That’s my desire too and I believe it’s possible, even though in painting, everything seems to have been done. It’s a finite set of moves. So how does one work with this limitation?
CVH I’m aware that it sounds almost like a joke, it’s such a platitude, like duuh! But I say it anyway because I think it needs to be said. If you’re honest, no matter whether it’s possible or impossible . . . it is the goal. It’s not just about something that I haven’t seen before. I could just go to a shop to see something that I haven’t seen before, a pot that has a different color. What I’m referring to is that initial cringe factor. Seeing as a triggering and an experiencing. A painting should challenge the eye in an unexpected way, even if that feels uncomfortable or annoying at first. But it’s not about this initial aggression. In the end the painting should make sense and have the urgency and presence of something that you can neither add to nor subtract from. It should simply become a fact.
SK Donald Kuspit was talking about how in a painting you witness consciousness coming alive, when it was previously unconscious. You mentioned that when people look at a painting by you for the first time, they don’t know what to do with it, but the second time they see it they know how to engage with it. Is it because the image is already in their consciousness and therefore it seems familiar and not strange anymore?
CVH Absolutely. I think we have a very strong instinct to protect ourselves against something that we cannot classify. It’s a remnant from ancient times; a primal instinct from when the unknown could be a tiger or some other threat. And that protective instinct is still in action subconsciously. People can actually only see the paintings when they see them again. I almost wanted to call my last show Please Come Twice. (laughter) The second time around you have already registered that these paintings exist in the world and you don’t have to worry. Then you can make them your own.
SK Pablo Picasso’s paintings were considered difficult in the beginning despite being made by a “master.” Then they seeped into the public’s consciousness and were no longer seen as an assault. Once people become familiar with the lexicon, a difficult work becomes a masterpiece.
CVH He always started with an image of something, having a blast with its deconstruction. I’m totally envious of that, but that just wouldn’t lead me anywhere right now. What I’m trying to do is to create an image that has the iconic value of a sign but remains ambiguous in its meaning. Something that feels like a representation but isn’t. Something that looks as if it has a content or a narrative but hasn’t. Something that is kind of hovering in front of the painting instead of just being it. Walter Benjamin defined image as “dialectics at a standstill.” I don’t see a reason not to go for that, even though it might not be an option anymore.
SK James Wood, the literary critic, talks about something similar in notable contemporary novels. It will have all the elements of a great novel, like complex narrative and great writing, but it won’t have the moral or ethical message that we used to find in older works, because content is constantly shifting. But experience is recurring, which keeps works of art fluid and not fixed.
When you were studying in Germany, who were your influences or who were the artists you respected?
CVH I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time with friends who were very influential: Diedrich Diederichsen, Albert Oehlen, and Mayo Thompson, whom I was living with. And I was working for Joerg Immendorff, so I was very aware of the Michael Werner Gallery artists like Polke, Markus Lüpertz, and Georg Baselitz, although the one that I adored there was Don van Vliet, strangely enough. I still love his paintings. But then I started showing with Christian Nagel Gallery—which was mainly focused on context art—together with Fareed Armaly, Christian Philipp Müller, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, and, most importantly for me, Michael Krebber and Cosima von Bonin. So that was a healthy antidote and produced a lot of heated and often drunken discussions. And Kippenberger had a huge impact on all of us—one way or another.
SK I also loved the paintings of Don van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, when he was showing with Mary Boone years ago. I’m curious about your titles. One of your works is called Igitur, which I like a lot. It has a cross.
CVH I’m always trying to find titles that have several layers, like the paintings, and ambivalent or multiple meanings. They should also convey a feeling phonetically and capture something of the paintings. And that painting Igitur has a strange pathos, somewhat phony and real at the same time, so I needed a title to reflect that. “Igitur” is a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. He continued to change it for years and left it unfinished. The poem is about the impossibility of making art—and about art as suicide. At the time I was reading Maurice Blanchot, who was obsessed with Mallarmé, and I’m obsessed with people who are obsessed with Mallarmé because they always make for a cool access to pathos. I have tried to get there through Mallarmé himself, but I just can’t enter that mind space.
SK The painting is dark, but it has a light lavender background, right? There’s something shocking about it. It should be a depressing painting, but it isn’t.
CVH Yeah, it’s a very strange painting that way. It advertises itself as this heavy-duty, existential oil painting, almost like a Georges Rouault, but when you get close, you realize that the surface is not keeping that promise; it’s almost like a betrayal. I wanted to use the paint in the way that Robert Bresson uses amateur actors, getting a performance that is more intense and precise because it’s stripped of all theatricality—or in the case of the paintings, viscerality. The painting refuses to work through the guts, the visual information goes directly to the mind. My last show was very much about that, among other things.
SK Earlier you mentioned speed and how using the Cubist style can change the speed in a painting. Do you mean the effect of speed?
CVH That was about manipulating the speed of perception. But I do use the effect of different and even contradictory speeds in the actual making of the paintings to manipulate myself. And the fastest move is just at the beginning and often hidden later. It’s about kind of outrunning myself, about going beyond design. And it makes you realize that going beyond design is initially just going primitive: if you look at the paintings you will notice that almost all of them have the same structure—very centered but following a circular movement that ends up in the bottom right.
SK Yeah, now that you mention it. (laughter)
CVH I like how it’s a kind of dirty secret: that it is actually the same painting over and over again!
—Shirley Kaneda is an abstract painter living and working in New York. Her work was featured most recently in the traveling exhibition Underwater, curated by Angela Kingston in the UK. Upcoming shows include one at the Centre Regional d’Art Contemporain in Montbeliard, France. She is a professor at Pratt Institute.