Abstract and landscape by a single brush at Elizabeth Moss Galleries
by Daniel Kany
Gina Werfel's "Geographies" at Elizabeth Moss Galleries is a divided painting show. Half of the works are lively abstractions, while the other half are Maine-style plein air landscapes.
Werfel is a professor at the University of California-Davis, but she was on the faculty of Colby College from 1980 to 1991, so she is well-rooted in Maine painting. Her split personality as a painter echoes the fundamental divide in regional painting. To consider how both approaches relate to the artist and each other is to consider an underlying but largely unspoken conversation within Maine's art communities.
Both modes of Werfel's paintings are quick and spritely. This has been an essential quality of plein air painting from the moment paint was put in tubes early in the 19th century and carried by the painters of the Barbizon School out into the French landscape. Light, weather and painting conditions change quickly, so the plein air artists produced not what the French would consider finished paintings, but something more like an oil sketch - an "ébauche."
The jet-quick approach played an important role in the dominant post-war American painting of abstract expressionism, the idea being that improvisation captured fleeting glimpses of inspiration and content. (Willem de Kooning famously described painterly content as "an encounter, you know, like a flash - it's very tiny, very tiny, content.") Moving quickly makes it easier to "get in the zone," to preconscious expressions of spirituality or id-driven surrealist-style impulses.
This is why so much plein air painting has a performative quality: Wet paint on wet paint is difficult to master and visually complex. It takes more skill than technique. It's more about bravado than intellect. And it's exciting to look at.
Speed also opens the door to post-war American notions about art: Instinct and personal impulses produce an art of individualized integrity. This is why we post-war Americans have been fixated on the art of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. We (correctly, though possibly for the wrong reasons) see them as the predecessors of Jackson Pollock, de Kooning and the proudest moment of American painting.
Of course, this also connects our contemporary sensibilities to arguably the greatest moment of American painting, led by Winslow Homer, seconded by Marsden Hartley and John Marin, and then punctuated by the likes of Fairfield Porter and Andrew Wyeth. Let me be clear: American painting has had two particularly great streams - landscape and abstraction. And it's not by chance that the landscape painters listed here are Maine artists. How do Werfel's paintings fit into this historical roots conversation? They do not vary from the traditional conversations, other than the fact that they, at once, occupy both sides of the wall. What's unusual is Moss' exquisite curatorial choice. Galleries often feature a single, more identifiable - therefore more brandable and more marketable - season of an artist's work. To be sure, the works initially look like they are by different artists, but both modes are quickly and energetically executed and their openness to each other comes into focus rather quickly.
Werfel's landscapes, not surprisingly, use a more localized, earthy palette. The wet brush is obvious and well-placed out front, particularly in paintings like "Lobster Pool," in which the liquidity of the paint is highlighted in the spread of brush marks. Werfel doesn't hide the drips and goes out of her way to finish with fat, wet strokes of negative-space blue between the branches of the drippy green pines. Werfel is far from fussy with the medium, which she celebrates in the skill of her brush. Werfel's dedication to legibility in the landscapes is particularly apparent when she draws scratchy lines in the wet paint with the heel of her brush. In addition to clarifying her representational intentions, this plays up the plein air race of painting.
Werfel's abstractions are more mixed. At their best, like with "Singapore" - which, was sold and, unfortunately for gallery visitors, removed - the paintings are richly textured within an atmospheric complexity that hints very strongly at Baroque illusionistic ceiling paintings by the likes of Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709) - which look like the view up the centers of tornadoes that have grabbed scads of chubby cherubs and richly robed saints and thrown them wildly into the sky.
This saints-in-a-hole-in-the-sky logic is readily apparent in Werfel's "Ceiling" and "Opening." It is these paintings that establish the vocabulary for all of her abstract works, with the exception of "Hillside," which employs the more liquid strokes and a semi-secret horizon line running from the top left toward the bottom right.
If Werfel's works emulate Baroque illusionistic ceiling paintings, are they abstract? Indeed. Werfel is presenting something we can readily identify as an abstract painting that doesn't play by the rules of earthy space or objects. What abstraction requires is system rather than description, and even then only enough system to convince us it is intentional rather than accidental. Abstraction, in other words, is the product of the viewer rather than the artist: It needs to be identified as abstraction. Representational painting - like language - relies on recognition that consequently does not need to be recognized as art in order to functionally convey its content.
Werfel's work is surprisingly free of conceptual content. This is not a problem. In fact, it makes them more present and easier to appreciate than art that tries to do too much. You don't need to see, for example, Baroque structures in her abstract work in order to follow her intention, which is, quite simply, to make successful abstract paintings. And even when the abstract paintings are weaker, they come across as session paintings made in one go - the effect of which is to reveal how Werfel challenges herself with something beyond a failsafe recipe.
"Geographies" succeeds because of the honesty of Werfel's works. Her enthusiasm for art history and the act of painting are apparent. She clearly likes the feel of paint on the brush. While the divergent modes of landscape and abstraction create interesting contrasts, in the end they come together with shared values.
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Werfel at Adler
by Kenneth Baker
Work such as Outlaw's and what we see in Complicity can set up a craving for the older, more savory uncertainties of painting. The pictures in Northern California painter Gina Werfel's show at Adler & Co. will satisfy it.
A landscape-inspired near-abstraction such as Knights (2008-09) contains a full measure of unbalancing acts, to borrow playwright Richard Foreman's term, but it leaves the eye glad to be awake in its time.
Art in America—November 2007
Gina Werfel at Prince Street
by Robert Berlind
Gina Werfel's paintings, some of them plein-air, move easily between the hill country of northem Califomia and that of Umbria, the similarities of light and terrain more evident, as she paints them, than the differences. In this exhibition. she also traversed the divide between representation and abstraction. She does this not in order to raise theoretical or stylistic questions about painting but to explore continuities and reciprocities between the two approaches.
Her paintings range from a fluid version of Cézannesque spatial structure to gravity-free rococo airiness. The abstractions, which are larger than most of the portability-scaled, on-site paintings, dispense with the topologies of landscape, yet their liquid and loosely calligraphic imagery remains obviously nature-based. The improvisational play of washes and brushstrokes constitutes a sort of unhinging of her fluent descriptive vocabulary, now relieved of its reportorial function. No explicit orientation registers gravity's immutable up and down; in Gaia Diptych, for example, runs of thinly washed paint flow in all directions. The abstractions could be looking to Tiepolo by way of Joan Mitchell.
For the most part, even Werfel's landscapes do not emphasize topical features, although she always establishes a strong sense of place and its picturesque pleasures. Where trees or water or the undulations of hillsides are shown, the movement of the paint is no less emphatic than the image. Her use of diagonals, rather than verticals and horizontals, to establish structural underpinnings favors dynamic flux over architectonic stability. Architectural elements, for example the orange roofs in several paintings, serve to establish scale and precise location. New Construction, in particular, focuses on one of the houses that punctuate the hills west of Davis, where she now lives.
The abstractions could be studio ruminations on the outdoor paintings; the landscapes, in turn, could hardly exist without the tradition of painterly abstraction. In both cases improvisation and chance play central and, one feels, celebratory roles. The 5-by-6-foot Umbrian Landscape, while clearly representational, corresponds to the exhibition's other canvas of the same size, Ground Cover, which is abstract. We seem, in the first, to be looking down from a height toward the foreground, where patches of gray suggest olive trees, moving up to a high horizon. The second offers' no single spatial construct but occasionally asserts roughly parallel, diagonal axes, as though in memory of some particular terrain. An insouciant lightness of touch and a restrained, precisely pitched palette that tends toward a sun-drenched haziness characterize Werfel's work throughout.
Sacramento Bee—May 2005
by Victoria Dalkey, Bee Art Correspondent
Gina Werfel's recent paintings at b. sakata garo carry on an amicable conversation between abstraction and representation, Including both large-scale gestural abstractions and smaller painterly images of the Sacramento Valley. the show offers different points of view about a common subject: landscape.
The abstractions. which have a vertical format, are evocations of color, light and movement which suggest reflections in water, foliage and floral motifs, the essence of landscape without the specific details. The more representational works, which have a horizontal format, employ bold painterly markings to delineate recognizable subject matter, most often scenes of suburban houses in semirural surroundings,
Werfel, who carne to California three years 380 to teach at the University of California, Davis, has exhibited regularly at galleries in New York City and Birmingham, Ala., for many years but is a relative newcomer to the local art scene. Though she has been included in group shows at the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis, the exhibition of 20 oil paintings at b. sakata garo is her first solo show in Sacramento.
While some of Werfel's smaller works get a bit lost on the gallery's brick walls, the aggressiveness of her energetic mark-making overcomes for the most part a selling that is generally hard on paintings.
While Werfel's earlier landscapes focused on Maine, the Southwest and Yosemite, her new ones examine the clash between nature and man-made structures that occurs as agricultural land is developed. While nature is partially tamed in these images. Werfel's brushwork stays wild, as thick strokes of paint define the elements of the landscape. Up close, the images dissolve into pure painterly markings that assert their individuality, but from afar they read as loosely rendered landscapes that are simultaneously impressionistic and expressionistic.
In these works, Werfel's approach to color ranges from the subtle, grayed tones of “Stonegate Palms" to the brighter hues of “La Playa Drive." The motif of houses and trees facing on a pond with reflections is common to most of these works, which hover on the edge of abstraction. Of them, “Winter Light,” a swirling image of grays and greens, stands out. Also compelling is a wild welter of marks making up an image of palms in evening light.
Wefel's lush and lovely abstractions have affinities with the works of the late abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. In these large vertical canvases, Werfel's gestural handwriting takes on a lilt and her color seems to cut loose and sing.
The sheer joyful exuberance of painting comes through in these works, which range from the subtle radiance of "Ref1ection" to the tender, springlike, dance of "Movement.” Werfe! clearly bas a romance with paint, but she tempers it with intelligence, control and a discriminating approach to color that keeps works like “Flowers" from lapsing into decorative sweetness.
Art in America—May 2004
Gina Werfel at Prince Street
by Vincent Katz
Over the past two decades, Gina Werfel has developed a way of painting that tantalizingly walks the line between landscape and abstraction. In recent works from 2002-03, the scale of her marks makes them difficult to interpret as elements of a coherent view. Werfel often uses brushes an inch or more wide, making blunt contours of her subjects. While the scenes may be read from afar, up close the paramount impression is of individual brushstrokes. Even from far away, the marks assert themselves as separate from one another.
In this exhibition, the horizontal canvas tended to be more legible as landscapes, while the verticals functioned more as abstractions. This has partly to do with the fact that the verticals appear to be made at closer vertical points. Whether, as their titles suggest, the vertical views are of a garden an arboretum, a cascade or reflections, they seem to indicate the effects of light on variegated surfaces and colors, while horizontal pieces like Pink House, English Hills and Bone’s Farm (all 2002) makes use of long views that maintain the recognizability of natural and man made structures.
Lobster Pound (2002) is a deft depiction of reflections in water and the forms composing the sides of small dwellings. The viewer simultaneously reading the image as a conventional scene and a disorienting conglomeration of strokes, is placed in a situation that is at once intelligible and unfamiliar. In such works, Werfel’s technique most alluringly captures the particularity of the places she depicts, whether they be in Maine or in the Southwest, two regions in which she has worked over the years.
Werfel’s colors are often muted, and there is much tonal subtlety within her surging strokes. Because her marks can cover broad swaths of depicted areas, she does not need to fuss with intricacies of observed texture and color; the relationships in which she is interested are those within the painting, not the landscape. Her works tend to be in the 2-by-3-foot range; one wonders what would happen to Werfel’s perceptual experiment if she upped the size of her canvases. She might find some surprising results.