Pitched in a 2006 group exhibition as an artist with strong ties to the legendary Cologne, Germany, art scene of the ’80s and ’90s, Charline von Heyl’s return to the Institute of Contemporary Art admits something basic about her work: It needs no context beyond itself. Mapping 18 paintings and three suites of prints on paper, the mid-career retrospective (her first) presents a body of work that functions forcefully within the logic of its own universe.
At first, the show reads clean: a steady march of identically sized canvases evenly spaced on white walls. But a few paintings begin to muddy the air. “Big Joy” (2004) is a vortex whose dishwater-brown smears clot in a dense fog at the center; “Medusa” (2006) has a similar brown globule, but plies it with runny earthy and blushing flesh tones.
In both paintings, the eye is buffeted by a shifting surface that blurs softly out of focus in one quadrant only to slam sharply into crisp detail in the next. This process of constantly adjusted vision is a theme throughout von Heyl’s work, usually achieved though pairing depth with bold flatness. In a painting like “P.” (2008), whose gray void is tightly ringed by a brutal pattern of black jags, the eye zooms manically between near and far vision. We sink into the center of the painting only to hit a matte wall in the spikes surrounding it. Whirling through dizziness, we often crest a wave of insight as we stare at von Heyl’s work. Through zooming forward and reeling back, her paintings persuade us to travel vast optical distances in a relentless effort to confront the inscrutable.
Enacting another shift in distance, von Heyl describes her approach as “painting in reverse,” an act of effacement that sometimes scrubs out an original form, or obsessively layers paint over earlier impulses. Using hands, rags, spatulas and brushes, she sands, rubs and wipes the surface of the painting away, which, paradoxically results in even more painting. Upstaged by wriggling trails of color and caustic jabs of charcoal, this process of effacement is an invisible backstory, hinted at only in the hefty texture that weights certain areas of the canvas.
Von Heyl's titles, just like her paintings, bear many layers of meaning. Consider “Igitur” (2008), in which a darkly liturgical talisman floats on a lilac vapor. The title quotes an unfinished Mallarmé poem, while the painting itself hovers between the gravitas of a religious icon and the irreverent wash of a commercial lithograph. Like many of her best paintings, it’s an amalgam of references that stops just short of being recognizable.
Only twice does she stray too literally into citing giants of Modernism. Standing in front of “Yellow Guitar” or “Time Waiting” can trigger a disappointing bout of Picasso fatigue thoroughly absent from her more boldly nonreferential works.
Grappling with Picasso and Abstract Expressionism is inevitable, and von Heyl’s strategy unfolds largely in terms of color and optical gymnastics. Thumbing her nose at the jockeying machismo of the New York scene at the height of painters such as Jackson Pollock, von Heyl describes her work as “melodramatic abstraction,” paintings saturated with an excess of pathos whose contours escape precise delineation. Her dramatic colors back her up; her works are punctuated by acid yellows, plastic purples and oranges that make the eyes ache. But even then, flat plains of black charcoal turn us from the rhythm of these high-gloss brush strokes like a tonic. Operatic in tenor, von Heyl’s paintings avert our eyes even as they scream to be seen.
Through Feb. 19. Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St. 215.898.7108. icaphila.org