Ahead of her first solo UK expo, the German artist discusses creative addiction, the 80s art scene and signature styles
In our times we have been obsessed about trying to explain art – what are we seeing, what does it mean, why should we like it (or dislike it). If contemporary art is, even when controlled, ultimately a creative impulse, then shouldn't the mystery be part of what attracted us to it in the first place? Artist Charline von Heyl, now the subject of a major expo at Tate Liverpool, thinks abstract painting doesn’t want to be described. For her, “What makes a painting is a mixture of authority and freedom, where it really just wants to be itself, where there is no justification, explanation, or anything like that. Where it’s just what it is for whatever reason.”
Having witnessed first hand painting’s resurgence in the 1980s through the radical experimentation of the Köln art scene and experienced the optimistic boom of 90s New York, she has absorbed multiple influences into a cerebral and dynamic approach, layering and sabotaging oil, acrylic and charcoal for a final result that screams that it’s something, but what? If the painting is a code and von Heyl has the key, she is not going to give it away – you’ll have to find, with your experiences, your own way of seeing it and accept that it just is, with all its paradigms and contradictions. Ditching all concepts, “I thought I saw…” would be perhaps the best way to describe it.
Dazed Digital: Since when are you addicted to creating?
Charline von Heyl: That happened quite late I guess, as it is the case with most addictions. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the moment. I just know that these days I get into a really bad mood if I want to work and something is keeping me from it. There are still plenty of dead times though when I can’t work because I don’t feel up for it, and then I’m a master of procrastination.
DD: How was living amidst the vibrant art and culture scene in 80s Cologne? Why did you move to New York in the 90s - and why did you stay?
Charline von Heyl: It was exciting and stimulating. There was a lot of alcohol, and arguing, and for a moment we all had a real sense of being at the right place at the right time, which is the best. Just when that grew stale and I was ready for a change I got invited to do a show in New York, it was perfect timing. A friend knew somebody who wanted to rent their very cheap space in the West Village for a year, so I decided to make the paintings there. And then I fell in love with the town and with my future husband.
DD: Why are you said to resist having a signature style?
Charline von Heyl: I don’t resist having a signature style. I am open for it if it ever wants to happen.
DD: What is your creative process? Where do you find inspiration and how do you start a painting? Do you believe destruction is necessary for creation?
Charline von Heyl: I find inspiration almost anywhere. I prefer to call it input, because it doesn’t translate in a one to one way into art. I scan books and the web and the world constantly, but usually I can’t predict what will come of it. I just keep adding to an image-bank inside from where stuff can pop up in unexpected combinations, an arsenal of visual moments. I work in layers on a painting; it is a process of adding and obliterating. Destruction is part of the making, it is thinking by doing. Destruction is work. But some of my paintings just appear really fast out of nowhere, without destruction, those tend to be my favourites.
DD: You’ve said you’re tricking your mind into being weirder because you like things to be weird. What is weird for you and why do you like it? If you trick your mind into being weird, does this mean you’re ultimately "normal"?
Charline von Heyl: Weird for me is something that makes me wonder, something that I can’t quite understand, for which there are no ready words. My understanding of it is constantly shifting. I actually don’t think there is such a thing as “normal”. That’s just a huge and annoying projection coming from the wrong side.
DD: Why do you think it’s sometimes difficult to interact with abstraction?
Charline von Heyl: It’s an active involvement, the seeing becomes doing, not just registering. Not everybody is up for that.
DD: You’ve said a lot of people in the art world are unlearning to see - why is that?
Charline von Heyl: It was just a feeling - but for everyone trying to bend an artwork to illustrate their ideas there seems to be a fresh and curious new pair of eyes seeing more then ever now, so I take that back.
DD: You’ve also said you want to invent something that has not yet been seen. How to do it, how to paint now, in a world of image overload? How do you surprise the viewer - and yourself?
Charline von Heyl: The image overload is just on the surface. Just fish a little deeper.
DD: What a work of art must do, and what it mustn’t do?
Charline von Heyl: There are no musts or must nots. Freedom is the key, for art and for anything else.