For six months, from the fall well through the winter, the large, vibrant paintings of Charline von Heyl hung on the walls of the first-floor gallery at the ICA in Philadelphia. I remember peeking into the gallery as they were uncrating them, how even half unwrapped they caught and drew the eye with their great splashes and zigzags, their stripes and squiggles and harlequin diamonds, their cloudy, ambiguous orbs. These are big paintings, each one nearly seven feet tall, and the 17 of them on view in the exhibition here made the space vibrate with energy and color.
The other week, I had the opportunity to see the show at the ICA/Boston, where—pruned and reconfigured— it is currently on view. I wanted to see how different it would look in that quite different space. Would it be like seeing the same dress on two sisters? Like meeting an old friend after a long absence? Or perhaps it would be like revisiting a familiar city in a different season. (Note: There is no institutional relationship between the two ICAs.)
In Philadelphia, the gallery opens off a tall, sunlit lobby. Entering the show was like plunging into a pool: paintings all around you, a wealth of choices as to where to swim.
The works were generously separated, but in that big, open space you were always aware of more of them to your left and right, behind the partial walls, and all the way back in the depths of room. Color shimmered everywhere, calling out for you to look.
In Boston, you enter the show through a kind of anteroom, a narrow gallery with one painting on the left: Phoenix, with its swoop of red and its diamonds of blue and black, its white background and lozenges. Rather than plunging, one eases into the show, absorbing the fiery colors and bold shapes of Phoenix like a mountain climber pausing at base camp to get acclimated to the new air.
I pass through a doorway into the second room.
The three paintings in here happen to be three of the von Heyl paintings I know best. I think of them as the drippy purple one, the bright yellow one with the knife, and the one with the squid shapes and the bloody hand prints. I’m happy to see them again after our months apart, but something is strange. I seem to see shapes and patterns I don’t remember: a curving ribbon of black triangles in the drippy purple one, inky tracings in the purple wash in the squid one. In fact, I don’t really remember the purple wash itself—I would have said it was more of a gray. I start to wonder—did I not look at the paintings as closely as I thought I had back in Philadelphia?
This feeling of unfamiliarity is intensified in the final room, where I spend a lot of time staring at a painting I don’t remember, wondering how I could have forgotten it (it turns out it wasn’t in the Philadelphia iteration of the show). I circle around a couple of times, eavesdropping on visitors, looking for Untitled (aka: Greetings), the favorite of the Philadelphia ICA’s guard, Linda, but it isn’t here. This show has fewer paintings than the Philadelphia version, which feels like a loss to me, except that I find myself looking more carefully at the paintings that are here, which feels like a gain. Because of the smaller size of the rooms, I’m standing closer to the paintings. I wonder if that’s why the colors look so different.
According to Jenelle Porter, the show’s curator, the lighting here—a filtered northern light from shaded skylights plus bulbs—has a huge impact on the way the show looks. “I think it’s the light that makes the show look like a jewel box,” she wrote me in an email. “Also, the galleries are very ‘white’ which really makes the color of the painting pop….But all in all, it’s the same show—we even hung the works in essentially the same relationships we established in Philly.”
Still, it’s the differences that stay with me. The word that keeps surfacing in my mind here in Boston is intimate. When I think back on the show in Philadelphia, I think electric, I think buzzing. I loved that electric, buzzing energy, and it was always a delight to wander through the gallery and visit the paintings on my way in to or out of work. But it’s here in Boston, for the first time, that I can imagine living with one.
Charline von Heyl is on view at ICA/Boston through July 15.
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