Gina Werfel: In Context
On ViewPrince Street Gallery
September 7 – October 2, 2021
Gina Werfel, originally a New Yorker, has spent the last 21 years teaching art at the University of California, Davis, but she maintains a residence on the edge of Harlem and has been a long-time member of Prince Street Gallery. She makes ebullient, enthusiastic New York School paintings that can best be described as free-form versions of Lyrical Abstraction. At the same time, in addition to the New York School, Werfel’s paintings indicate her interest in the ceiling-based paintings she has seen in Italy. This show reiterates the idea that a movement as inspired, and emotionally large, as Abstract Expressionism can relay its insights into contemporary art, despite the fact that its high point occurred some time ago. Of course, Werfel, independent in mind, proceeds according to her own trajectory. She favors messy flourishes that spread across the entire canvas, in ways that indicate Lyrical Abstraction’s remarkable history but also develop new ways of thinking about the past. It is hard to bring a sense of independence into the genre Werfel works in, but she is able to paint with a feeling for the present.
In Plunge (2020), a sky-blue background is taken up with all manner of painterly debris, organic, geometric, seemingly entire, seemingly fractured. The bits and pieces mass along the left side of the painting and on the bottom right; fewer forms occur in the middle, allowing the blue to come through. The painting lyrically expresses itself in mixed densities: an open sky is placed in disarray, embellished by abstract shapes and lines that seem to be falling from heaven—or, examined differently, plunging into water. The painting reflects an ongoing interest on Werfel’s part in Italian murals, especially those composed on ceilings. Plunge’s orientation lifts upward, toward the center of the composition, much as you might see in the ceiling vault of a Baroque cathedral. Sweep (2020) occurs on an off-white background, with mostly yellow, blue, and orange shapes thrown like confetti onto the canvas. Except for a brown stab of a mark, there is a small clearing in the middle of the painting. The marks build upon each other in layers—Werfel’s strength is not only in her vivid use of colors, it is also about their density, which suggest strata of uncommon happenstance. There might even be something slightly humorous in the artist’s enjoyment of free-form energies.
Citron (2019) is a nice name for a beautiful painting. A light, light yellow, the work is structured by a bridge of sorts with side supports and a horizontal band connecting on the top. The flourishes Werfel commits to are mostly blue, with the greatest activity occurring on the left side and the upper right, which has some darker coloring. The visual intensity of the painting is heightened by the bright background and the furious brushwork that takes place. The expression of freedom occurs in all of Werfel’s art, which finds substance in the flourish against a single background color. Stencils of Chinese holiday paper cuts, decorations Werfel found during a stay in Singapore, further embellish the composition. Bioelectric (2019), three feet square, is hung on the wall just adjacent to the entrance of the gallery. It is a salmon-pinkish color in its ground, with the usual wide array of marks, ribbons, and splotches and dots massed on top of each other. It is a particularly strong painting, whose extravagance in color and form works. Werfel is nothing if not energetic in both her hues and her manner of execution.
These paintings are convincing because of the force of Werfel’s hand. They are part of the broad, and by now extended, past of New York’s Lyrical Abstraction. The style of this school, nearly venerable at this point in time, remains large enough to support continuing investigation. Werfel has attended to her art history classes well, but she also offers something original. A painter of maturity, she conveys the impression that art made in this way can be kept alive by passion and a brush free of constraint. We may need to wonder just how much longer the performance of an unbounded abstraction can be extended. It is hard to say. But an artist like Werfel reminds us that modes of painting, however established they may be, remain alive in the hands of a committed painter. Both the largeness of the movement and the excitement of the practitioner keep the works alive.