“Those are finished,” Charline von Heyl says, pointing out some paintings along one wall of her Chelsea studio. “The ones on that side I’m still working on.”
It’s a bright October afternoon and Charline, whose work first appeared at ICA in the 2006 exhibition Make Your Own Life: Artists in and out of Cologne —and whose ten-year retrospective is on view at the museum this fall and winter—is hosting a studio visit for ICA’s Leadership Circle and Art Council members. Tubes of paint are lined up neatly on a table, and there’s a battered couch under the window with tea, cigarettes, glue, books, and a bottle of whiskey close at hand. A corner of the room is crowded with shelves, and Charline goes over there a couple of times to find something to show us: a volume on Juan Gris, a French book of fairy tales told largely through pictures—Épinal-sheets—that used to belong to her mother and on the pages of which Charline’s own childish marks can be seen. “It’s funny,” she says, flipping through the pages. “I still know most of the images by heart. Your taste is done very early.”
Every day when I go to work at ICA, I peek into the gallery at Charline’s big paintings, which look elegant and formal spaced out on our big white walls.
In here, clustered closely together and propped up on bricks and blocks, they look more casual, their scale somehow more human. Or maybe it’s that Charline is here touching them, moving them around, and talking about them.
“I love stripes,” she says, pointing to one of the paintings. “If I can’t get anywhere and I don’t know what to do, I paint some stripes.” The stripes may or may not not stay. They may be painted over later—just a way in, something to help open up the canvas. “The first demand is always the white square,” she says. “To tickle something out of it.”
Charline, who was born in Germany, has lived in the US for decades. She is tall and confident in jeans and boots, a vest over her shirt, her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her easy, self-deprecating way of joking about herself is striking. “I’m one of those people no one believes exists, who always knew she wanted to be a painter,” she says. “I was so convinced I was a painter that for an eternity I didn’t paint.”
She points to a canvas. “That painting is just slowly building up, and I don’t know where it’s going yet.” She moves to another, foggy blacks and grays with black splotches of spray paint across the surface. “I knew when I went at that one with the spray paint, either it would work or I would destroy it.”
“It’s like you’re vandalizing your own painting,” Ingrid says.
Charline agrees. Either it works, or you throw it away—that’s her attitude. She doesn’t seem bothered by that. She says she gets easily bored: “I am always just in love with change.” Change, layers, newness, ugliness. “It’s really following a desire to see, and to see something else again. Obviously it gets harder as you get older. It’s the original motor that makes me want to work.”
We look at the paintings, turning slowly around the room, pointing, looking harder. We ask questions about titles, influences, how many paintings she works on at a time. She shows us African Kuba cloths she likes, exercises in abstraction made of raffia: “The pattern shifts and you can’t see where it shifts…Only women are allowed to do them.”
She points out a snake in one of her paintings, a frame painted into another, a highly representational piece of skin in a third. She tells the story of how she ended up in America, one piece in a group show leading to a cheap apartment, leading to meeting people, leading to the next thing and then the next. And here she is.
“I was often in the right place at the right time,” Charline von Heyl says of her career. And while that may be true, it’s also clear that through some combination of stubbornness, risk-taking, perseverance, and talent, this is a painter who makes her own luck.
For more information about ICA’s Art Council and Leadership Circle opportunities, email Christianna Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charline von Heyl is on view at ICA through February 19, 2012.
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