The Brain is Deeper than the Sea
Chaline von Heyl at Petzel Gallery
While I am more familiar with contemporary female artists than most, I was surprised to note that none of the criticism I read surrounding Charline von Heyl’s newest installment at Petzel Gallery mentioned Laura Owens. To me, before Dubuffet and Dix (who various critics have cited as influences), von Heyl is clearly living in the milieu of several other contemporary female painters I can think of: Owens, Bridget Riley, and maybe even Cecily Brown (who happens to be a good friend of von Heyl’s). Herein lies an unfortunate phenomenon I’ve encountered when writing about female artists: women are celebrated for their work as it relates to the work of great men, but not often are women celebrated in the context of other great women. The result is a half-understanding of these artists’ work, like watching the carriage move, while being unable to see the horses pulling it.
Missing out on this connection, however, does not lessen the visual impact of von Heyl’s art— only impaired sight could do that— but it might affect which elements to which we pay attention. Knowing the headspace in which both von Heyl and Owens live, I chose to focus on their tendency to play with surfaces in order to subvert traditional conventions in painting (one of the opening paintings at Petzel, Tondo, leaves a portion of the canvas deliberately unfinished). Both painters have fun pushing these limits, but von Heyl does so in a more sincere way. Where much of Owens’s work is amused by painting’s flimsiness, von Heyl uses the canvas’s surfaceness to celebrate the unlimited creative potential inherent within painting. Often, the brushy, colorful, textured backgrounds in these works are foregrounded by stenciled geometry in matte black paint, sometimes in the shapes of raindrops, a frame, or stars.. And often these layers feel not as if they lie on the canvas, but before it, as some sort of barrier to entry. But as with any closed door, along with it comes a challenge to enter, to step out of the gallery space and into the painting, a place in which anything can happen.
Without spelling it out, von Heyl defines what a painting is: a fantasy world in which we are able to indulge riotous color and the endless inventiveness of two-dimensionality. By delineating the space between gallery and painting, she transforms its surfaceness into an asset. She almost seems to be saying “what we’re dealing with here is superstructure, but isn’t it fantastic?” Often art’s “purpose” is obtuse, yet we know it to be necessary.
By clearly evoking those before her like Picasso and Sonia and Robert Delaunay (in Hero Picnic and Mana Hatta respectively), von Heyl lets us know we are looking at capital-A Art, but adds her own playful superimpositions (an Alice in Wonderland-esque parade of rabbits, for example) in order to call attention not just to her paintings as paintings, but rather to the absurd pleasure it is to look and think about one. All painting is fantasy, from Delacroix to Kahlo, and if a canvas reminds us of that fundamental element we can appreciate the magic all the more.
The expansiveness of this type of art is not limited to painting, of course, and the evocation of Emily Dickinson, whose profile appears in three of the works, is a testament to the same type of worldliness accessed from the limited. Famously reclusive, Dickinson wrote thousands of poems and within them found a space in which to dwell outside the finitude of her home in Amherst. Her isolation was deceptive, as she found endlessness within finite space and valued the breadth of human thought and creativity. Her lines reverberate with a distinct Heyl-ian ethos:
Last week at Petzel I dove head first into the deep seas of Charline von Heyl’s paintings, and I have yet to reach the ocean floor.