Charline von Heyl’s Delightfully Enigmatic Etchings

  • Courtesy Crown Point Press

During a recent visit to work at the historic San Francisco print studio Crown Point PressCharline von Heyl told founder Kathan Brown: “When I was drawing, I really wasn’t thinking about anything but a gesture, just about putting a mark on that plate,” and then added, “But sometimes I slip into thinking about the art thing: if this could be something that hasn't been made before.” This intuitive-meets-existential approach has served her well.

Known best for painting but equally skilled at collage and printmaking, von Heyl creates layered, enigmatic works that challenge verbal description. The German artist is no stranger to the spotlight—she has been showing with Petzel Gallery since 1994 and has been the subject of major solo exhibitions at Tate Liverpool, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and the Dallas Museum of Art, among others—and 2014 only furthers this point. Just before the year began she was named among five finalists for the Guggenheim’s prestigious Hugo Boss Prize; 36 of her collages occupied a full wall at the Whitney Biennial (on curator Anthony Elms’ second floor); and in December she will be featured in MoMA’s “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a show of 17 contemporary painters who capture the 21st-century zeitgeist. The next item on von Heyl’s agenda though, is a focus on her print work, at Crown Point Press; on the West coast her new prints make their debut at the San Francisco gallery space, while days later a selection make their way to the East coast for the esteemed IFPDA Print Fair in New York.

  • Courtesy Crown Point Press

Across mediums, von Heyl’s works are marked by a vast array of amorphous forms and vital lines that interlock and overlap and are often interspersed with pattern and texture—and her prints embrace these tendencies. Lingering just outside figuration, her abstractions offer endless intrigue, frequently prompting viewers to seek out the hidden meaning. While working at Crown Point Press—an experience which is documented in a fantastic video produced by the Press—the artist tried her hand at multiple etching techniques, while applying her thoughtful-yet-spontaneous approach to the various methods. As she dabbled in soft ground etching, spit bite aquatint, sugar lift aquatint, dry point, and chine collé, von Heyl’s tendency to layer her works in mystery manifested itself through strata of divergent techniques. Schatzi (2014), for example, is the result of a plate on which she created a thin line drawing through soft ground etching, plus a plate where she utilized spit bite aquatint, carefully using a brush to apply thick swathes of acid, resulting in the translucent passages in the final print, and then applied a soft blue triangular form through chine collé.

The resulting prints, executed in charcoal greys and vibrant oranges and yellows, actively utilize the full picture plane, grabbing the eye and beckoning consideration of each swirling network of line and form. The asymmetry, irregularity, and infrequent hints of figuration are a reflection of the artist’s attitude and sense of humor; for example, she took one look at a proof of Schatzi and said, “that’s pretty nutty.” As the video documents, von Heyl went through the motions of each process with a delighted sense of experimentation, eager to try out new methods and test out which plates, when printed on top of one another, created the most cohesive compositions. While any explanation behind each work or its title is not divulged, it’s clear that this is not central to the prints’ significance. Von Heyl is driven by intuition, the physical act of mark-making, and the daunting challenge that she gracefully accepts and succeeds in: to produce original work that looks nothing like anything that has been done before.

—Casey Lesser

Visit Crown Point Press at IFPDA Print Fair 2014, Booth 204, Nov. 5th–9th.

Explore IFPDA Print Fair 2014 and Crown Point Press on Artsy.

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