Snake Eyes, Charlene Von Heyl: Deichtorhallen, Hamburg

Review for The Journal of Contemporary Painting, 2020

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journal of contemporary painting
Volume 5 Number 2
© 2019 Intellect Ltd Exhibition Reviews. English language.



Reviewed by Rebecca Partridge, West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

The first meeting with a painting by Charlene von Heyl is typically bemusing. Whereas most often seeing a survey of an artist’s work aids its comprehension, a collection of these paintings is all the more perplexing – each immediately recognizable yet a new world unto itself. It is a compelling place to be, in front of one of her anthropomorphically scaled canvases, but what is it about these odd, alien, contradictory paintings that feels so contemporary and so exciting?

Snake Eyes is the largest exhibition of von Heyl’s work to date. Opening at Hamburg’s Deichtorhallen with over 60 paintings spanning the last ten years, the works then split into two non chronological parts: half touring to the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens and the other to the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, DC. The gallery space in Hamburg is vast, opening out into room after room of paintings that fizz with visual invention, optical trickery and dizzying art historical refer- ences. Everyone has seemingly been invited: the Cubists, the Surrealists, the ancient Greeks… cave painting, Kuba cloths, comic graphics and street art are all stitched together by ‘design’, or a linear- ity that gently antagonizes an obtuse and ever-surprising palette. The paintings stare back at you intensely, like the mute stare of snake eyes, both gut-wrenching and otherworldly.

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Figure 1: Installation shot: Henning Rogge and Deichtorhallen, Hamburg.

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1. UCLADepartmentofArt Lecture, May 2011.

2. UCLADepartmentofArt Lecture, May 2011.

It takes quite some time to settle after the initial sensory storm. Attention to the paintings’ physi- cality reveals multiple layers and erasures, although impossible to know which came first. The process is labyrinthine – you might never find your way through a painting the same way twice. There are some common visual strategies: stripes, borders, voids – either empty or the source of emergent forms. Where there is figuration it invites reference and yet resists narrative; this is undoubtedly an abstract pursuit. Reading the works as collages, as clusters of visual ideas, brings to mind Aby Warburg’s anthropology of images (Warburg 1927–29). Furthermore the potency of any individual work has an iconic feel – as if on a Jungian quest for a primordial visual understanding (Jung and Franz 1964). However, whereas Jungian symbolism seeks the collective within the chaos, von Heyl turns that on its head – she takes the chaos and stamps it into reality; these paintings shout their own existence. Although not without humour, they are as absurd as they are assertive.

Von Heyl grew up in Bonn and the sense of contradiction in her work finds its roots in the recent history of German painting. Before moving to New York in 1996 she was working in Dusseldorf, in circles with Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Sigmar Polke. This was the time of ‘bad paint- ing’, steeped in ironic critique of Berlin’s Neo-expressionist painters of the 1970s and the 1980s such as Karl Horst Hödicke, Rainer Fetting and Salomé, the ‘Neue Wilde’ with their intensely subjective approaches to the medium. These ‘New Wild Ones’ described their own activity as ‘Heftige Malerei’ or ‘fierce painting’, an echo of the heroic male gesture of Abstract Expressionism. Kippenbergers’ postmodern parodies, although made within another male dominated painting scene, questioned the expressive gesture as a signal of sincerity. Von Heyl’s early works also played directly with an ironic position, but as she says herself, ‘irony is usually just a test drive for what you really mean’.1 This is at the heart of what makes von Heyl so interesting; her attitude is hard to pin down, there is as much doubt as confidence and a pervasive sense of conflict and paradox. The flatness of the works renders them always distant, and yet she does not seek to deride felt gestures – instead she uses surface as an interface between embodiment and critical remove. It is impossible to think about these paintings without considering the legacy of the brushmark and its associations; yet curiously, she simultaneously disregards the medium with which she is in an obsessive relationship, ‘Neither the act of painting itself, nor the materials I’m using, nor the history of those materials, is in the least interesting for me. What interests me is how the painting, in the end, conveys a new image’.2

The images do indeed feel new. There is a sense of connection between subjectivity and other- ness: a seduction through visual tricks that trigger sensory responses in dialogue with content of another world. In paintings such as The Colour Out of Space (2013) von Heyl makes direct reference to science fiction (H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story), conjuring gaseous clouds in layers of spray paint and chalk from within which- or into which- ‘living’ objects travel. Knowingly or not, the paintings speak of contemporary metaphysics, of energized objects, non-human actants. There are echoes of Haraway’s cyborgs in their subversion of ‘myriad organic wholes’ (Haraway 1991: 12), here mutating

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Figure 2: Installation shot: Henning Rogge and Deichtorhallen, Hamburg.

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Figure 3: Installation shot: Henning Rogge and Deichtorhallen, Hamburg.

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Figure 4: The Colour Out of Space, 2013. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 209.6 × 182.9cm. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

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Figure 5: Left: Black Smile, 2013. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas. 208.3 × 198.1cm Right: Banish Air from Air, 2017. Acrylic and fabric on canvas. 172.7 × 546.1cm. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York.

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from the pre-modern, psychedelic lexicon of grids, honeycombs, dots and diamonds. In Black Smile (2013) a blank matt black sinks into the canvas, a mesmerizing grinning void. To shake ‘snake eyes’, two ones on the dice, is considered bad luck and there is an ominous undercurrent here. Other works such as Blue Eye (2008) have a tender spaciousness, and the exhibition is punctuated with moments of joy and improvisatory surprise.

The most recent works in the exhibition were at the far end of the galleries; although not a chronologically hung show these works mark a tangent from earlier logic. Whereas, with only few exceptions, the previous works stuck to portrait format, this final room introduced two large-scale landscape works. Here was the moment of disappointment in an otherwise flawless exhibition. The playful opticality of Soul Rag (2018) was ruptured by the all too direct reference to Geurnica, equally the overt text of ‘Banish Air from Air’ (2018) slipped into the language of graffiti culture to the extent that it punctured the potent ambiguity that I had come to expect. These works reveal the parameters of the practice; they underscore the importance of graphic elements and visual quotation, but argu- ably their usefulness is bound to their obscurity.

Ultimately Heyl’s jettisoning of ‘painting with a capital P’ has paid off. Her outward-looking, insa- tiable curiosity is a reminder of what it means to look, of what it means to be visually intelligent and to create vital, obsessive paintings that are as contextually complex as they are directly experiential.


Haraway, D. J. (1991), ‘A Cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century’, in D. J. Haraway (ed.), Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, pp. 149–82.

Jung, C. G. and Franz, M.-L. V. (1964), Man and His Symbols, New York: Dell Pub. Co.
Warburg, A. (1927–29), ‘The Mnemosyne Atlas’, tute-archive/bilderatlas-mnemosyne/mnemosyne-atlas-october-1929. Accessed 14 September


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346 journal of contemporary painting