“When I went to Marfa last time,” Charline said, “I was totally burned out.” She was speaking at a program at ICA, where her survey exhibition Charline von Heyl, curated by Jenelle Porter, closes this Sunday. Charline spoke passionately and memorably about painting, abstraction, representation, desire, frustration, and how she began her newest body work, during a long stay at her studio in Marfa, Texas. It was one of most dynamic and generous lectures I’ve heard in a long time.
“I’m always fascinated by the stupidity of the painter,” Charline declared, meaning the way a painting grows out of small steps taken in the studio—out of doing things that might seem dumb at first glance but are necessary to awaken what she calls the right kind of frustration. This is the active frustration that leads to solving problems in paint, as opposed to the passive frustration that leads to nothing but sitting gloomily on the couch.
Not that sitting around on the couch can’t be a part of the process too. In Marfa, Charline did a lot of reading and looking at books, a lot of walking in the parched Texas landscape and whiskey-drinking and lonely mulling. Among the books she spent time with were catalogues of work by Willi Baumeister and Bernard Buffet. Of an early Buffet self-portrait she said, “It’s so weird and stubborn and awkward, but also right.” I think that’s one of the most profound compliments I’ve ever heard an artist give another.
I love listening to artists talk about the work of other artists. It’s almost better than hearing them talk about their own art, maybe because the way they see the work of others isn’t clouded by desire or intention, insecurity or pride.
Or maybe, on the other hand, it’s precisely because their own particular artistic desires and intentions, insecurities and/or pride, make them see other artists’ work in ways the rest of us don’t.
One of my favorite parts of the talk was a discussion of the work of the figurative painter Dana Schutz—in particular, of Schutz’s 2007 portrait of Mike Kelley. “It’s visionary,” Charline said. “It takes you someplace.” Schutz, Charline suggested, imagined the figure (she worked without a photograph), then tweaked it: the fist is too small to be realistic, for example, and the elbow lines up conveniently with the edge of the canvas. “In abstraction,” she said, “it’s the same thing. I’m tweaking, too.” But, since she’s not working from an original in nature, the viewer can’t identify what she’s tweaking from: “You just feel the strangeness. It’s charged with something.”
In relation to Buffet, Charline also said this: “I am interested in artists who are considered second rate, or third rate, because they get onto something, but then they get stuck repeating themselves.” Maybe this insight is part of Charline’s determination not to repeat herself. It is often said about her work that each painting is utterly different, a world in itself. Yet of course there are things that unify the work: her taste, the way she handles color, the way the scale of the paintings is an outgrowth of the size of her gestures. All these things are part of what she calls “a little of the red thread that runs through,” which I take to mean the continuity that comes from her singular hand: her singular self.
The other week, when curator Bennett Simpson was speaking at ICA, he said something interesting about inevitability. Whenever a mode of working, or an artist, becomes a major focus of the art world (Bennett said), that mode or person takes on an air of inevitability; but really, there is no inevitability. There are always a million things we might be talking about, so it’s worth asking what constellation of circumstances makes that one thing so present in the public imagination. He was referring to the incorporation of props and stagecraft in current art; but I’ve been thinking about the extent to which Charline von Heyl and her work have—apparently suddenly—sprung into the public imagination. Witness recent pieces on the painter in Artforum, Parkett, The Huffington Post, Art in America, and elsewhere, as well as a major upcoming exhibition at the Tate Liverpool.
It’s impossible to say how much of this sudden spotlighting is because of the nature of the current artistic moment, the reassessment of abstraction, the sheer fascination of the work itself, the painter’s personal charisma, specific serendipitous meetings, or anything else. But as we get ready to say goodbye to Charline von Heyl at ICA, I like to think we’ve been a star in that constellation.
Charline von Heyl is on view at ICA through Sunday, February 19. Don’t miss it!
From March 21 – July 8, you can see the show at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.
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