London: Koenig, 240 pp., $95.00
A good painting focuses our attention in a matter of seconds—what is sometimes called wall power—and it also holds our gaze over time. It repays prolonged looking. A good painting appeals to both the eye and the mind, the one refreshing the other. There is no one thing or set of things that a painting must do. A good painting can look like anything at all, or like nothing we’ve seen before.
All painting is, in a way, a response to pressure. In the case of realism, the visual world seems to demand from the painter some kind of representation. A maker of abstractions, on the other hand, with no reference point outside of the canvas, responds to a buildup of pressure in herself; she has to convince herself of the rightness of her actions. She may have a predilection for certain shapes, or for ways of making marks or color harmonies. A painter makes her own loose system by which elements in a painting can be made to relate to one another, one that reflects a personal notion of order vs. chaos. Having made up their rules of engagement, some painters then push against them; the protocols are tested to see how they hold up under stress. One makes difficulties for oneself. Think of it as the painter getting out of a jam of her own devising; like Houdini with a brush, she backs herself into a corner from which a daring escape must be made.
The art of painting has real vitality at the moment, possibly because the old arguments about whether or not to paint are finally just empty husks. Talent is everywhere, with good painting in almost every part of the globe. Yet there are probably only a handful of painters whose work one must see, whom other artists look to for a sense of permission as well as a gauge of morale. One of them is Charline von Heyl, an uncommonly inventive and resourceful painter who is currently having a midcareer survey at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
Von Heyl was born in 1960 in Bonn, Germany, and came of age among the artists in Cologne and Düsseldorf who orbited the two suns Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. In the 1980s in Germany, a deconstructionist attitude toward painting was in the air; interrogating the purpose as well as the nature of the form was de rigueur. One question burned: What does it mean to make a painting? The answer was simple: whatever you can make it mean.
In 1985 Von Heyl moved to New York and soon began to attract attention for her confident optical abstractions. Starting in the late 1990s, in a succession of solo shows at her longtime New York gallery,…
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