Charline von Heyl is an inventive artist whose paintings, collages, and prints are characterized by elusiveness. She is known for colorful, stream-of-consciousness paintings that merge figuration with abstraction. The source for her art comes from literature, pop culture, metaphysics, and her personal life.
Von Heyl was born in Bonn, Germany and began her career in Dusseldorf and Cologne where she belonged to a group dominated by the painters Martin Kippenberger, Sigmar Polke, and Albert Oehlen. Unlike them, von Heyl believed in the ability of paintings to elicit a transformative aesthetic experience for the viewer. She wanted to slow viewers down and trap their gaze. “It’s not about mystifying anything; it’s about lengthening the time of pleasure. Or torture.”
In 1985, von Heyl moved to New York and garnered recognition for her optical abstract paintings. In the late 1990s, she participated in a succession of solo shows there. Her willingness to try different styles allowed her work to grow in complexity and resolution.
Von Heyl is a painter of shallow space who favors a vertical rectangular shaped canvas, which is still wide enough to showcase her forms. She does not have a cohesive style. While certain motifs and patterns recur in her work, some paintings are so dissimilar that it seems as if they were painted by different artists. Her work swerves from gestural abstraction to cartoonish figuration and then to hard-edged graphic pattern. Many of her paintings start as developed compositions but are then painted over in different colors.
There is pattern everywhere with high-key color harmonies juxtaposed with the color black: black stripes, black smears, hard-edged black shapes, black charcoal lines, black arrows and darts, black water, and black branches and trees. In her 2017 “Lady Moth,” a web of black lines is the scaffolding for blue and lavender forms, which push against the shape’s contours. At the center of the painting is a black silhouette of a moth that gives the form its solidity.
Some of her work is brooding and moody and not at all hard-edged. Some of her paintings look as if they have included computer-generated special effects with images shattering or cascading off the screen. Her most recent works have a circus feeling of playfulness and wit. She always starts with a line which can look like a cut out or a collage and paints with iridescent and interference translucent acrylic paint. Her purpose is to make a painting more alive.
Von Heyl has just finished having a mid-career survey at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., which was part of a larger show that appeared in the summer of 2018 at the Deichtorhallen, an art center in Hamburg.
The Hirshhorn featured thirty large-scale paintings done from 2005 to the present time. Von Heyl notes that the paintings were arranged in such a way that each room of the museum had a different mood. Some rooms contained paintings that had dark undertones, while others presented works that were fun. She wants her works to be considered ‘sculptural’ since their large size would fill a viewer’s whole field of vision.
Van Heyl has had a traveling retrospective at Tate Liverpool, which traveled to Nuremberg and Bonn, Germany. A second show was exhibited in the United States at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and in Philadelphia. Her work is in the permanent collections of MOCA Los Angeles, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA New York and San Francisco, the Hirshhorn, and Tate London.