"P." by Charline von Heyl (2008)

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Give me an old-fashioned painting show. No infinity mirror rooms with endless lines for selfies. No girls in glittering gold strumming guitars. No wall-to-wall drawing installations. No 360-degree anything.

With all due respect to Mark Bradford, Linn Meyers, and the other artists who have wrapped their work around the curvaceous walls of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden recently, the latest exhibition there is a sight for overstimulated eyes. Charline von Heyl’s work makes no mention of the doughnut-shaped building, in form or any other way. Her show features no razzle-dazzle beyond what the painter brings to the canvas.

And for the time being, Charline von Heyl: Snake Eyes has the ultimate feature in a quiet show: no audience. On Jan. 2, the Smithsonian Institution finally caved to the federal government shutdown, which is now running into its second week. All 17 of D.C.’s Smithsonian museums, including the Hirshhorn, are closed. With no end in sight—and no extension for Snake Eyes in the works—the shutdown could cut short von Heyl’s run by a month if the government does not reopen before the end of January.

That would be a shame. Charline von Heyl: Snake Eyes, a survey of this artist’s work since 2005, offers a glimpse into the mind of a brainiac. Her thoroughgoing paintings pull together threads from Cubism to Pop Art to the present. Von Heyl’s artworks read like public puzzles, complete with clues, dead-ends, and red herrings (or as the artist describes them, “tricks”). They reward close looking, without being deliberately obscure. Viewers who spend time with them will find themselves teasing out old lessons from art history, or simply delighting in looking. (If they get the chance.)

While new painting can be a challenge to viewers who aren’t steeped in recent trends, von Heyl’s work is welcoming. Part of that is her sense of humor. “Vacancy” (2017) is as close as contemporary art gets to a punchline. The painting features vertical stripes of pastel color with a soft, indistinct print pattern, like a humdrum wallpaper. In the center of this stripe painting, the artist leaves a dab of black acrylic—a gash, maybe, or tear in the wrapping paper. Strips of what look like white tape seem to be keeping disaster at bay. There’s a cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote physical comedy to the painting, as if it were being held together by ACME adhesive. But the whole thing’s a gag: There is no hole, and also no paper. The artist combines screen-print and comic-illustrational painting styles for a prank in abstraction. “Vacancy” is not quite a feat of trompe-l’œil. It’s playful creation, not reproduction.

Other paintings by von Heyl, a German artist who lives and works in New York and Marfa, Texas, are just as smirking. “The Language of the Underworld” (2017) winks at art history. The acrylic and charcoal painting features forms that draw from the visual vocabulary of early modernism: namely faces with funky snout noses, a clear callout to Cubism. There are flower cut-out forms repeated in black, white, and black-and-white stripes. Von Heyl is pitting Matisse against Picasso and putting herself at the center of this mod conversation. For good measure, the artist drops in some words in Pop Art lettering that she has also obscured—words like “handsome,” “posthumous,” and “shadows!” in small-caps lettering. A restricted palette of white, black, highlighter-yellow, and blush rose gives the painting a vaguely vintage newsprint feel. At a glance, it works like a Stuart Davis painting in a Roy Lichtenstein mold.

Other contemporary painters have turned to modernist heavy-hitters for inspiration, of course, and some of them have borrowed so liberally from the likes of Picasso and Fernand Léger that they force viewers to ask what’s going on. The artist who comes to mind is George Condo, whose portraits hung in a salon-style show at the Phillips Collection in 2017. Condo appears drawn to the high-key sexuality and hard-charging bravado of the era. (Unsurprisingly, his works graced the cover of a Kanye West album.) Condo borrows Cubist strategies to draw out the violence and vigor in his portraiture subjects, whether he’s mocking royals or workaday joes. But when von Heyl borrows from Matisse or Picasso, it’s with a lighter touch and a keener eye to formal values. She cites Paul Cézanne as a reference for “Carlotta” (2013), a piece with a muddle of abstraction at the center dividing a partial portrait and a hard-edged abstract painting. “Carlotta” gestures at whole eras of painting in a single coherent work. 

Installation view of “Charline Von Heyl: Snake Eyes.” From left: “Dub” (2018); “Slow Tramp” (2012); “The Language of the Underworld” (2017). Credit: Cathy Carver

Pastiche is just one tool in von Heyl’s kit. Two paintings frame Snake Eyes: the aptly named “P.” (2008), which stands for “painting,” and “Dub” (2018). In “P.”—a standout in this show—von Heyl drafts an amorphous cloud in charcoal and pastel crayon that is circumscribed by bolder geometric forms. The central shape looks like a stain on the canvas. It’s contained by a ring of jagged chevron shapes, a string of triangle flags in black and red. In painterly terms, it’s an atmospheric abstract painting bound by a hard-edged geometric painting. “P.” is another window in the canvas, a portal that offers a glimpse into a different world—but both the frame and the scene it contains belong to the same surface. Von Heyl doubles down on “P.” with “Dub,” a quotation that uses lighter triangles on the edge and thicker abstraction for the center, as if the storm had strengthened and the window had waned.

Von Heyl moves forward by looking backward. Her work shows that painting still benefits from its rich internal dialogue with history. That’s not to diminish the de-centered, artwork-free performance orchestrated by Tino Sehgal over the fall, or the flashy interactive installation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer currently up at the museum—far from it. Unfortunately, there is a conservative train of thought that prizes painting over any other genre for all the wrong reasons (mainly stuffy patriarchal values about beauty). Praise painting too much, wind up with these strange bedfellows; dismiss painting as dead, risk associating with a different kind of brute.

Instead, a painting like von Heyl’s “Mana Hatta” (2017) is a reminder that it’s almost impossible to exhaust a medium, even when it seems like there’s nothing new under the sun. “Mana Hatta” depicts a system of some sort, with complex coils or gears that look back to the geometric Cubism of Sonia Delaunay. It also features fauvist forms, including rabbits rendered in what could be Ben Day dots—borrowed either from old comic strips or the modern art wing. Von Heyl insists that painting can still claim the same ground today as it has done in generations past. If there’s a single value that stands out in Snake Eyes, it’s a re-think of what progress looks like in contemporary art.

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through April 21. Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu.