Charline von Heyl’s paintings share the qualities of a ballet dancer—effortless grace with the help of discipline and serious muscle. First, a word about the muscle: the works are all large (typically around six square feet), and the canvases assert a palpable degree of authority, even in the context of a very spacious gallery. A few forms that pack a big punch dominate each bold composition. In “Slow Tramp” (2012), a massive, sensuous flow of black paint zigzags across the canvas, only to be interrupted by another large gray form hanging down into the center. In “Skull” (2012), an enormous black bulbous shape covers almost three quarters of the canvas. Such powerful forms lend the images an elemental feel.

Charline von Heyl, “Guitar Gangster,” 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 86.5 × 82.25”. CvH 13/014.

True moments of grace frequently equal the power of the dominant components. Quality of gesture and line are primary concerns, and von Heyl is capable of the finest line, the lightest wash or the fattest stroke to achieve her ends. The acrid yellow ground of “Bois-Tu De la Bier?” (2012) is more piss than lager, but the long, elegant black scratch marks along the perimeter of the square canvas appear to have been made without effort or hesitation. In “Miserabilism #1” (2012), refined and fluid line drawings are effectively juxtaposed against equally loose and generous brushwork. Grace can also come in the guise of a light shadow attached to a larger form, as in the mint green shadows connecting one rectangle to another in “Moky” (2013).

Unsurprisingly, the strongest paintings achieve a perfect balance between the subtle and the bold, whether embodied in gesture or formal motif. This is where discipline is key. In “Night Doctor” (2013), a solid black multi-humped blob dominates the bottom third of the canvas but the top two-thirds is an ethereal, restrained composition of light pink and green gestural washes, lines and drips. It might have been tempting to counteract the weight of the black shape, but von Heyl knew just when to stop. “Jakealoo” (2012), finds a similar equilibrium. Here, an expansive rainbow arc is covered by a subtle wash of white. Over that, a collection of forceful vertical magenta strokes builds into a grid, and another layer of moist black strokes tops that, coalescing into a monumental, Giacometti-esque structure on the left side of the painting. On the right side, lightly sketched lines, a large dark eye, a tiny rectangle of orange, and large areas of airy “negative” space offset the weight on the opposite side of the canvas. Just a tiny amount of green seeps out of the black edges—enough to make the magenta vibrate ever so slightly but not enough to make the whole painting about color contrast.

All of this originality is accomplished while peripherally conversing with previous generations of painters. The massive, tooth-edged vertical triangle, overlaid with a grid of fine black lines in “Guitar Gangster” (2013), inevitably recalls Picasso and Braque’s cubist experiments. In “Done Got Old” (2012), fine dancing lines morph into graceful shapes that rest on fields of open white ground. They pay homage to Miro and Gorky without being derivative. Intentional or not, the references are deftly made without any loss of originality.

Viewers searching for recognizable forms and easy meaning may be disappointed. Although objects such as a face, a flower vase, and an eye do appear, they do not command full attention but are rather one of several compositional elements in any given painting. Whatever “meaning” is present derives primarily from von Heyl’s formal investigations into the interaction between garish color, idiosyncratic shape and gestural line. Even “Vase With Flowers” (2012), one of the few paintings with recognizable subject matter, is much more concerned with the quality of gesture and the particular relationship between a receding hot orange plane and the surrounding midnight blue ground than it is with describing an actual object.

Finally, it is impossible to overlook the fact that von Heyl is one of a small coterie of contemporary women who unselfconsciously play with the big boys. She, along with Amy Sillman, Cecily Brown, Rita Ackermann, and a few others, bravely carry forward the heavy mantle of male-dominated abstract expressionism, without regard for fashion or the market. For this feat alone, von Heyl should be lauded. A balletic tour de force merits a standing ovation.

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Corina Larkin

CORINA LARKIN is a painter and writer who lives in New York City. She is also an editor of the Rail's ArtSeen section.