It’s interesting to see the work of Cassie Jones and her husband, Mark Wethli, hung together, particularly at this moment when her work has swooped in on his. Jones, after all, moves gymnastically through materials, approaches and styles, and Wethli, not so much.

This is not to say his work hasn’t changed. It most certainly has. A painting of his that normally hangs in the Portland Museum of Art is a low-emotion institutional interior scene (an office? a dorm room?) rendered in high-focus realism with extraordinarily nuanced light. And now, Wethli paints hard-edged systems abstractions in just three or four flat colors with a dozen or fewer forms filling the picture space.

What hasn’t changed is Wethli’s patient appetite for refinement. An empty office with three pieces of 1970s furniture and an open window – you can see that in five seconds, if you’re merely looking to recognize the setting. It’s the same with his new work: In 5 seconds, you can see that it’s a reductive, hard-edged, geometrical, abstract painting. But this, of course, is not what painting is about. Ambitious painting was never simply literal labels.

Wethli’s newest paintings step forward from his musically tense but ever-flowing formal language of abstraction and blossom back toward the physical aesthetics of painting. Wethli had been working mostly on paper in Flashé (a super fine, high-pigment form of acrylic), and now he has shifted to canvas.

“If I Could Try,” by Mark Wethli. Photo courtesy of Mark Wethli

This might not sound profound, but when you see the works in person, the difference is obvious and immense. Flashé is dense, like gouache, so on very flat paper or panel, it has a dry, intense presence that feels almost idealistically pure. This is essentially opposed to the ever-physical presence of the standard painter’s canvas. And the differences go beyond aesthetics. Consider, for example, the different ideas conveyed by a blank sheet of paper and an empty canvas: One implies the physical act of painting and one doesn’t.

And when you work with hard edges, the bleeding of the paint means everything. So, for Wethli to move to canvas likely required a great deal of rethinking of his handling and application of his materials. But as one would expect with Wethli, even the canvas isn’t necessarily what it looks like. I was certain from the tightness of the weave that it was linen, but I was wrong. It’s a cotton weave, but finer than anything I had ever seen before.

“If I Could Try,” for example, is simple-seeming enough. It has just a few forms in black, beige and orange. But soon your eyes start to reorganize the composition. The four dark forms begin to speak of corners, and the beige becomes the background for the orange forms. That is, until you come to the beige form floating in a field of orange. There, the system comes apart, peeling itself, if you will, like an orange. And you might then actually count six dark forms. But trust me, there are four. Thus, what starts so simply begins weaving and reweaving itself like a melody developed throughout a symphony. The tune may be instantly memorable, but the structure is dynamically labyrinthian, impossible to memorize completely.

You could try to peg Wethli’s work into some current square hole like “neo formalism,” but his goals and sensibilities reach deep into the annals of painterly sensibilities. The content of his work is experiential instead of performative. In other words, to understand the work, you need to look at it, not talk about it.

“Sun Come Up,” by Cassie Jones. Photo courtesy of Cassie Jones

CASSIE JONES’S paintings have a much more comfortable relationship with fashionable painting. And I do not mean that in any negative sense. Her newest pieces superficially share Wethli’s penchant for a limited palette, apparent simplicity, formal energy and the play between positive and negative space. But Jones’s paintings sparkle like Champagne bubbles popping through the surface, that glass ceiling. And I do not mean to shy away from the hint of intoxication: Jones’s works, at their best, have the sense of giddy dance. They feel like fun game boards, if the forms and paths themselves could dance and play.

Jones’s “Sun Come Up,” for example, is a square work on paper featuring mostly black, white, gray and yellow organic – even childlike – forms. If it were a game board, then there would be a few special spaces: two blue squares, a mint bridge and a tiny pink chute to the bottom. Sensing a game, our eyes set to work, playfully bouncing around the paths. Unintentionally, we have entered Jones’s systems logic as we explore the game paths visually. To win, all we have to do is realize this is not game theory (with its eye ever on conflict) but play. Whereas Wethli’s work blossoms like composed music, Jones’s best new paintings unfold like spontaneous dance.

However, not all of Jones’s work flows with such happy abandon. “Straddle,” for example, features seven sky blue, orange and black forms reaching in over a white ground to create a line down the middle of the picture. The fact that we can see the goal of the forms – the line – makes them feel more scripted, choreographed.

The call to order itself is a type of tension, a conflict to be resolved. That is hardly a bad thing. Music without tension, after all, is like sugar without a cake. But slightly older works like “Straddle” help reveal the sense of Jones’s newest works: Gestures of dance can be spontaneous, scripted or merely theatrical. Jones’s finger-like gestures reaching into the middle are still about systems, but they are systems in service of a structure as opposed to Wethli’s work, in which the structures coalesce from the systems. Jones’s newest works evolve from play – a system – and at their best, step ahead of Wethli’s works because of the clarity of the energy. We understand play. Our eyes move about the game board-like surfaces with the rhythm of a child moving a game piece – step by step, counting the role of the die.

“Neptune,” by Steve Bartlett. Photo courtesy of Steve Bartlett

STEVE BARTLETT’S sculptures fill out the trio. Some of Bartlett’s works are rounded organic forms woven of dark wood strips. These work particularly well with Jones’s newest (and strongest) paintings. The others are small, tighter objects with polished surfaces built from a few contrasting colors of wood. “Neptune” is a small, solid shape like a cardinal’s mitre covered in grained yellow wood. It is banded with black edges and a few lines that turn at right angles that look like they might have stepped out of either Jones’s or Wethli’s paintings. It’s a strong show, well-punctuated by Bartlett’s sculptures.

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

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