Viewing contemporary art, one too often arrives on the scene with a sense that Mardi Gras is over and Ash Wednesday’s upon us. The fun is at an end; from here on in, it’s all cleanup and debrief. Dutifully, joylessly, one’s eyes defer to the wall labels.
When I look at Charline von Heyl’s superb paintings, on show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, I feel caught up in the midst of an experience that’s yet to end. Is it a celebration? A séance? A secret experiment? I can’t say. All I can say is that I am in a place where the dust is yet to settle.
Von Heyl was born in 1960 in what was then West Germany and, since 1996, has lived in New York. She can paint. From the very start, her show gives off a sense of painting as an extension of life - at once carnival and laboratory, private struggle and public blurt.
The show is made up of 13 large abstract paintings. There are also two series of smaller works on paper, each of which hangs in a grid. The exhibition has come to Boston from Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. It was organized there by Jenelle Porter who is now, serendipitously, a curator at Boston’s ICA.
The only pity of the Boston display is that it has four fewer paintings, and is short one series of works on paper. The difference isn’t huge, but the result feels less like a museum show than a display in an ample commercial gallery.
Painting is, and has always been, about space. To apply a painted mark - or a field of color - to a canvas is to set up a spatial dynamic between figure and ground.
That dynamic, inherent in the very process of painting, has fascinated artists since they first left handprints on the walls of caves.
In spasms of self-reflection, 20th-century painters ramped up the obsession with pictorial space - even, monomaniacally, tried to snuff it out, like a monster trying to drown its own babies.
Space proved unassailable. If anything, it emerged from the modernist upheaval stronger, more potential, more manifold than ever.
Von Heyl claims this volatile inheritance with relish. She treats modernism’s litany of spatial upheavals - Cubism, Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, Op Art, and so on - like her own personal stash of temperamental, dubiously sourced fireworks.
Somehow, she manages to unite modernism’s murderous rages against pictorial depth with the beefed-up optical “pop’’ of graffiti, cartoons, and Op art. She even throws in lyrical glimpses of old-fashioned, window-on-the-world painting.
Take, for example, “It’s Vot’s Behind Me That I Am (Krazy Kat)’’ - one of the funniest and most profound titles in recent memory. It’s a simple abstract painting in two colors - royal purple and something like chartreuse - plus black and white.
Both the fat, spontaneous-looking brush strokes of chartreuse and the waterfall of drips pull us up to the surface of the picture, like a pub bully holding you by the throat and pressing his forehead to yours.
But now your eyes nervously drift over to the left. That purple ground - those swishy Elysian fields we would so love to sink into - have turned black, and then, at the far edge, switched to a strip of creamy off-white. We begin to see black drips on white and white drips on black, and our eyes don’t know which way is forward and which way back.
Over to the right a triangular shard of diagonal black and vivid white stripes thrusts forward with the admonitory aggression of a road sign: Wrong Way! Go Back! But here, too, things get puzzling: Some of the stripes cut out and turn into drips; the purple background pushes through; chartreuse bleeds from above.
Finally, below this shard is a terrifying black rectangle. It’s like a little slice of Malevich’s zero gravity; a window onto endless night. Don’t turn your back on it: It’s Vot’s Behind You That You Are!
OK, I’m getting carried away. But these abstract paintings have all this and more. I haven’t even mentioned the cartoony white book that seems to float above the surface of a canvas with which it otherwise has little to do.
All 13 paintings in the show share roughly the same scale - mostly 82 or 86 by 74 or 78 inches.
Large, but not enormous. Apart from all being produced in the last six years, they share surprisingly little else. What links them is a love of explosive paint, of pattern (triangles and diamonds, especially), and of color.
“Lazybone Shuffle’’ - with its palate-cleansing zigzags of yellow overlaying a gritty, industrial-looking field of curling scratch-and-scrawl browns - is one of the best works here. But look out, too, for the delirious effusions of black-rimmed red against lilac in “Igitur,’’ the deranged harlequin patterns of “Black Mirror #2,’’ the bendy space-time netting of “Solo Dolo,’’ the austere, black-and-white shape-shifting of “Time Waiting,’’ the sweet meeting of ethereal texture and cartoon-spiked kapow in “P.,’’ and the sheer, bloody magnificence of “Alastor,’’ one of the most powerful paintings I’ve seen in years.
Von Heyl’s black and white works on paper, which combine drawing, painting, woodcut, silkscreen, and lithography with photo-collage, are no less exciting. Charged with vigor, vibrating with spatial ambiguities, they make technique itself seem explosive - an unpredictable element, rather than just a background attribute in service to something else.
As I said, I wish this show were bigger. Von Heyl warrants it.
Recalling idioms honed by artists as diverse as Philip Guston, Carroll Dunham, Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley, and Martin Kippenberger, her work is confident in itself, and capable of taking off in any direction.
Her massive mural in the Worcester Art Museum’s Renaissance Court (2010-2011) - riffing on Ellsworth Kelly and Matisse’s Vence Chapel decorations - was one of the more exciting contemporary art commissions in recent memory (credit to WAM curator Susan Stoops). Something similarly bold at the ICA would be just the thing.
In the meantime, see this show, before the party’s over.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.