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.

“Singapore,” acrylic on canvas, 40 by 24 inches.

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.

“Messalonskee Lake,” oil on canvas, 24 by 28 inches.

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.

“Hillside,” oil on canvas, 30 by 24 inches.

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.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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