Two of the best painting shows up in Chelsea right now are Amy Sillman: Transformer (or how many light bulbs does it take to change a painting?) and Charline von Heyl at Friedrich Petzel. Both artists are essentially working within the idiom of “abstract painting”, but both have figurative forms and references moving through these canvases as they search for meaning. The difference is in which direction those bodies are moving.
Amy Sillman’s large paintings feel more resolved, as if she’s arrived at a place that allows for a definitive statement. Parts of her previous figures are reemerging from gestural drawing and vivid color, aiming cartoon flashlights to help them find their way out the gorgeous wilderness Ms. Sillman has painted them into. Painting them out may be akin to a rescue, but contrary to a search in the wilderness I think the more space Ms. Sillman has to work with the better. Her large scale paintings allow her gestures and forms to get large and really move around the entire canvas without clogging the pictoral space. As she restricts the area available to her the paintings sacrifice clarity, as if we’re losing a sense of a larger whole by zooming our magnifaction in on a detail. In this sense a few very small paintings presented give us the least, and are akin to looking at only one or two pixels.
Where Ms. Sillman has a more noticeable style, Charline von Heyl takes the idea of searching for a new image to the extreme where the idea of individual style breaks down; indeed it can be easy to miss her search in the artworld’s tidal cacophony. I know her work more through its inclusion in recent tomes on abstract painting, such as Robert Nickas’s. Those paintings, even in reproduction, show an artist playing with the language of abstraction in each painting, taking it apart and seeing just how far it can be prodded, pushed, and stretched. Here there are passages evoking things that emerge from her gestures, stains, and patterns. Black Stripe Mojo has a cascade of forms that evoke livestock against a striped ground, a James Bond pin-up pushes through a pattern of diamonds in Woman # 2. Some forms are more concrete than others, but each is ultimately at the service of Ms. Heyl’s investigation. She sets her boundaries at the level of individual paintings, whereas Ms. Sillman’s carry over through her entire exhibition. It is the difference from canvas to canvas that lets Ms. Heyl trade the definitive statement for the energy of the search.