Charline von Heyl’s new retrospective show at Tate Liverpool

Art As I discussed here to a boring degree during 2010's Liverpool Biennial, I’ve always found it pretty indefensible to use the word “untitled” in relation to the visual arts, especially when an artist suggests that it’s so that us humans can make our own connections, interpret the work in our own way. Fiddlesticks. Such things should be inherently obvious in the work, or else outlined in the accompanying text, otherwise it leaves the artist open to a suggestion of copping out or not being sure of their own message. About the only occasion “untitled” can be used with a certain justification is if it’s a representative object and it’s perfectly obvious that we’re looking at a girl, a car or a packet of Skips crisps.

Which probably makes me the least receptive audience for Charline von Heyl’s new retrospective show at Tate Liverpool, which I was gifted a press ticket for today. Collecting forty paintings from the past few decades, von Heyl’s requested that they be presented without much chronology, with minimal accompanying notes and as little guidance on intent as possible so as to reduce as many elements of noise between the viewer and the work. In the brief pieces of text which are included, we’re told that von Heyl doesn’t make studies, doesn’t begin her painting with any pre-conceived ideas other than to “empty the canvas of content” and imbues them with no fixed meaning, style or technique.

So she’s the kind of artist who seems destined to fulfil all my “untitled” prejudices especially since many of the works are titled “untitled” and those which aren’t rarely have a descriptor which encompasses what’s on the canvas. It’s abstract painting for its own sake of the kind which usually dives me emotionally to distraction. I’d like to be able to say I was pleasantly surprised, but my intolerance for everything listed in the first paragraph above clouded my ability to appreciate the sheer chutzpah of everything in the second. This was one of those occasions when I stood in the near empty gallery space and theatrically threw my hands up by their side and gave an exasperated shrug.

But of course, the artist knows what she’s doing. Even a naysayer like me must develop some kind of intellectual framework to justify what they’re seeing, and since, after I’d put my hands back in my pockets, that’s what I did, the exhibition must rank as some kind of success. Spend time with “Pink Vendetta”, and it stops simply being a pink wash in cubist shapes, circles within triangles and begins to suggest a wound, perhaps even the results of medieval torture. The dirty autumnal splatters of “Orpheus” could suggest the mythic hero fighting against some grotesque monster. Even “Untitled (8/95) 11” becomes an alpine scene of sorts with snow topped mountains, pine streets and a log cabin, albeit married to other shapes which relate to nothing at all.

My favourite work is one of the most recent. "Killersmile" is a large canvas covered in thick vertical parallel stripes in various shades of cream and pastel brown painting, intersected towards the bottom by a deep black slice in the shape of a stake or dagger. More than any other of the works, there does seem to be a definite intent to the image, planned out and the title indicates that what we’re seeing is a face which has melted away, rather like the Cheshire cat of the Tate's previous exhibition, leaving this single, rather sinister sneer almost reflecting back to my own reaction to the collection. If Charline von Heyl’s methodology is simply to provoke me, she’s certainly done that.

Until 27th May 2012.  Admission charge.  

[Double Negative has an interview with the artist and the Huffington Post reproduces a statement of intent from Gavin Delahunty, Head of Exhibitions & Displays at Tate Liverpool].

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