Gina Werfel is a painter who created on-site landscape painting in oils for over twenty years. Then she changed. In the late 90s and early 00s, she began making paintings primarily in her studio, and working with diminishing attachment to perceptual subjects. More and more the paintings became a site where known configurations of space and form were released.
I meet Gina Werfel at her studio on the campus of University of California at Davis where she is a Professor of Art. It takes me a while to find the low-strung, temporary building in an outcropping of similar structures between Food Science and a rustic outpost of student housing. In contrast to its nondescript exterior, the building’s windows reveal a well-illuminated interior with flashes of bright paintings announcing the place. And here is Gina, brush in hand, standing before a piece in progress, Amy Winehouse on the audio system. She and Hearne had gone to see the documentary the night before — how was it? “Tragic.” Favorite songs? “‘Love is a Losing Game’ is a heart stopper. ‘Back to Black,’ another definite favorite.” Gina sets aside her tools and after a tour of works — masterful gestures of dashing orange, periwinkle blue, sienna, pink, peach and bouncy greens — and a demonstration of finger painting reminiscent of Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 Hand Movie — we sit down to talk.
Sarah Granett: Practice?
Gina Werfel: Well, it’s everything I do. My life is infused with practice. I come to the studio every free moment I have.
SG: Are your art activities connected to everything you do? Or is your studio work a distinct set of activities?
GW: It’s very connected because of my background in painting outdoors for so many years. I was just reading Hank Pitcher’s thoughts about painting outdoors — how experience comes into the painting when you’re out in the world. I can’t divorce my painting practice from my life.
SG: Is the place of the studio important to you?
GW: I didn’t have a studio for many years, since my studio was outdoors wherever I was painting. As imperfect as my current studio is, it is a sanctuary for me. It’s tucked away here. I love that it’s in a more natural part of the Davis campus, and a distance from where I teach. I have paint supplies at home, and I had an idea about doing collage in the backyard, or in one of our sons’ rooms, now that they don’t live at home — but it hasn’t worked out yet. It is hard to establish two studios.
SG: You worked with the landscape subject for many years. What attracted you to landscape?
GW: It was a way of getting to know new areas were I lived or visited. Working on site from the landscape was an immersive experience. It connected my love of being outdoors and exploring new places to color and form.
SG: And now you call yourself a young, abstract painter! What was it like to go from direct observation landscape painting to abstract work?
GW: I switched from working perceptually to abstractly about ten years ago. I was delighted to be freed from the constraints of the horizon and representation, and lose myself in the sheer sensuality of brush and mark making, finger painting. But I still need outside stimulus to make those marks distinctive. So I always have drawings up — mine or my son’s, works from art history, or photographs — those are visual reminders that my studio practice is coming from the world outside the studio.
SG: How did people respond to the change in your work?
GW: I was represented by a Los Angeles gallery at that juncture and the gallery offered a lot of support. Some of my landscape collectors found the abstract work difficult. Even when I used to paint representationally people would say, I can’t really tell what it is; photographic representation was never a goal for me. The mark making has always been critical, and I’ve been okay about the subject dissolving into the marks. In the abstract work that I do now, I often start with some visual source material, but the paintings fight me when they are too glued to that source. And I turn the canvases around as I paint to unglue them. Or I work on the floor which allows me to move around, and similarly disrupts gravity and a specific orientation.
SG: Your work has always explored an area between representation and abstraction.
GW: My work has consistently explored the tension between those two poles. Are there glimpses of representation in the abstract work?
SG: Definitely. Those big vertical ones seem figurative.
GW: Those big ones were started from childhood dolls that I found in my mother’s house when she died. I was teaching a lot of figure drawing and painting at that time, and I realized I still really liked working with the figure. So I set up the dolls in chaotic poses. And that painting started with the dolls. It has to do with my memories of my childhood, and also who I am as a person — sensuality, interest in the body.
SG: And maybe childhood too?
GW: It was odd finding various clothes stored with the dolls. I remember dressing them in some of those outfits as a young child. These dolls are Rubenesque, chubby things — I can really get into the fleshiness of them.
SG: I see pink body parts pushing through a flurry of marks, colors that loosely adhere as forms but not completely. These elements seem to be in a state of tumbling movement.
GW: I’m a frustrated dancer. I love watching contemporary dance. Merce Cunningham’s company came here about the time when I had really started working in abstraction. We invited Merce’s chief dancer to dinner; the way he talked about choreography was exactly the way I was thinking about my painting. One thing I liked was that there was no story. I recently saw Sankai Juku perform. Some of their dances are almost like a physical enactment of Renaissance or Baroque figure painting. I love how their body movements carve out space.
I’m a very energetic person. I feel a painting is successful when there’s a feeling of energy, a movement, but not tied to a specific narrative. Also I love to swim, and in my paintings I want to mimic that movement, maybe bodily or muscular, and also retain the sense of the first plunge!
SG: Often the forms seem condensed with a falling, cascading, or crashing/opening/dissipating that occurs at the bottom and edges of the composition. Maybe that’s like diving in.
GW: Part of the liberation in moving into abstraction was that I’m a tall person, and most landscapes make sense horizontally. And the canvases had to fit into my car when I went out painting plein air. In abstraction, I gave myself permission to make the paintings relate to my body more directly. And I ended up with these vertical paintings, like the doll paintings. Your observation about the feeling of watery movement is very perceptive. These relate to some transitional landscape paintings that focused on fragmented reflections and contradicted gravity by putting more weight at the top of the painting.
Also something that I found out when living in Singapore for the first time last year, was that I really responded to calligraphy and its vertical directionality. Someone mentioned that my work reminded them of Chinese landscape painting, and so I was at the Met looking at that — and I was really into the build up of calligraphic marks, although not so much the color.
SG: The marks seem to be jostling, pushing into each other; there are crowds — congestion — which sometimes suggest specific form, maybe of landscape, or doll parts — yet they’re not fixed — they resist. It gets back to what you said before about form dissolving back into the marks — returning to marks.
GW: I want breathability in the forms. Sometimes I leave the white of the canvas as a way of holding on to that breathability. I like it when you can walk into the space of a painting and walk out. But I alternate between paintings that have a chaotic density versus calligraphic marks in an open, less worked space. In the works on paper, I tend to let the space stay. They are playful experiments in different mark-
More of Gina’s work can be seen at ginawerfel.ucdavis.edu.