This essay, first published in conjunction with an exhibition of paintings by Gina Werfel at California State University Stanislaus in 2011 and posted at that time at artcritical, is now offered as our TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES as a new exhibition of her work opens at Prince Street Gallery through April 20.
I want gesture —any kind of gesture, all kinds of gesture— gentle or brutal, joyous or tragic; the gestures of space, soaring, sinking, streaming, whirling; the gestures of light flowing or spurting through color. I see everything as possessing or possessed by gesture. —Elaine de Kooning
In today’s pluralist, anything-goes art world, artists no longer voice the moral absolutes that they held sacred during modernism’s struggling years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: at the beginning of that period, abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky enjoined enlightened artists to “serve the development and refinement of the human soul” and “drag the heavy cartload of struggling humanity, getting stuck amid the stones, ever onward and upward”; near the end of it, Philip Guston returned to figuration from Abstract Expressionism and was condemned by colleagues for his esthetic betrayal
Fortunately, such battles are long over, and artists who work both representationally and abstractly, like the famously eclectic Gerhard Richter are seen, correctly, as, in Whitman’s words, “large [sensibilities] …contain[ing] multitudes.” Gina Werfel, a New Yorker who has taught at UC Davis for a decade, is best known for her landscape paintings, plein-air depictions of rural Maine, the Southwest, Yosemite, and, in recent years, Davis, a bedroom community near Sacramento built on former farmlands, that derive from a host of influences, from Mannerism (Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino are especial favorites) through modernism (Cézanne, Matisse, Diebenkorn, deKooning, et al.). These accomplished, eclectic paintings have been praised for their carefully observed and freely rendered evocations of place, but their abstract qualities were noted, too. Peter Frank (Gone West, John Natsoulas Gallery) pointed out Werfel’s interest “less in rendering landscapes of east and west than … in the abstract, intuited sensations of these spaces.” Victoria Dalkey wrote (“Nature Untamed,” The Sacramento Bee) that Werfel’s California landscapes “examine the clash between nature and man-made structures … as agricultural land is developed,” subsuming even tract homes, condos and McMansions into her lyrical vision, and that her abstractions suggested “water, foliage and floral motifs.” Mark Van Proyen descried an incipient dissolution of form in Werfel’s “evanescent atmospheres [that] seem almost interchangeable with elaborated topographies, almost as if the land were evaporating into the sky.” Robert Berlind (Art in America) saw the work as “travers[ing] the divide between representation and abstraction,” combining “a strong sense of place and its picturesque pleasures” with the purely pictorial pleasures of “an insouciant lightness of touch and a restrained, precisely pitched palette.” Kenneth Baker (The San Francisco Chronicle) enthused that Knights, an abstraction incorporating a childhood drawing by Werfel’s now-grown son, “leaves the eye glad to be awake in its time.”
In the spring of 2008, after three decades of painting onsite outdoors, Werfel decided to concentrate on the abstract elements and let her imagery emerge from the painting process. Clearly this shift was evolutionary, her transition from Renaissance windows on reality to depictions of artistic subjectivity aided by her habit of rotating the canvases sideways and upside-down to exploit the form-creating accidents of fluid paint. She selects subject matter that seems promising: “I may start with one of my son’s early drawings, but add forms from a plastic toy on my studio table, a Renaissance painting reproduction on my studio wall, or a segment of the landscape out my studio window or a remembered landscape element…There is not much nostalgia in my choice of these props, but rather a recognition of interesting forms within which reside some emotional residue and meaning… These props are no more than starting points, and after a certain point, I rotate the painting to dissolve the literal image and focus on what the painting dictates as next steps.” Her long study of and absorption in nature enables her to create, from sometimes unlikely sources, imagined parallel painterly worlds. “Improvisation is at the root of my practice—responses to the way a particular color or mark leads to another… Untethering myself from the demands of representation has allowed me to abandon the restrictions of a horizon line and naturalistic colors, and to explore without restraint some of the same issues that I had explored in landscape— dynamic, edgy movement, spatial complexity and atmospheric color and light… Speed, movement, gesture, allusions to the body and to landscape are all embedded in these paintings.”
The emotion that suffuses Werfel’s landscapes emanates from her abstractions as well. Alternating between jazzy calligraphy and serene mists of color, and often combining them, these works synthesize the gestural (Pollock, de Kooning) and colorist (Mark Rothko, Frankenthaler) wings of Abstract Expressionism. Fast Forward (2009), based on one of her son’s drawings of knights in combat, may be, due to its arduous creation, a symbol of struggle for Werfel, but its floral palette and floating calligraphy recall to viewers instead the semi-abstract arcadias of Kandinsky, Masson and Gorky. Headdress and Saddle, also deriving from her son’s drawings, similarly suggest nature transformed into symbols, while Collision (2010) does embody dramatic conflict and tension—de Kooning’s monumental abstraction, Excavation, sprung to coloristic life. More Asian and meditative in feeling are the more open compositions of Interlude (2009), Encounter (2008), and Cloak (2009). Werfel sees erasure as a form of mark-making, and likes leaving pentimenti, partial erasures, as suggestive, mysterious elements midway between source and metaphor, looking both back and forward, revealing their “complexity of references, and multi-layering of marks and forms. I want to retain the ghosts of previous decisions and retain the multiplicity of original sources.” These vaporous paintings with their ambiguous actors or hieroglyphs are landscapes of metamorphosis that reveal themselves to the long gaze rather than the quick scan. Baudelaire, in his poem, Correspondences, described Nature as a temple of living columns and a forest of symbols. Werfel’s works are poetic, even dreamlike, depictions of nature that emerge from the collaboration of the playful imagination and the disciplined eye and hand and attain their own reality.
“Persistence of vision” is the term for the brain’s acceptance of a succession of rapidly projected images —24 frames per second is the cinematic standard— as continuous motion. Paradoxically, it might also be applied to the enterprise of painting, which might, in this hectic digital age, seem anachronistic. In the long view, however, painted visions (and revisions) like Gina Werfel’s, reconciling real and imaginary, and embedding time and flux, will persist, renewing and transforming a tradition as old as humanity. Joan Mitchell, the Abstract Expressionist painter, characterized painting (along with photography) in a 1986 interview, fittingly, as “the only thing [art form] that is both continuous and still.”print