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Abstract and Beautiful

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


ABSTRACT AND BEAUTIFUL: Two exciting shows of abstract painting hit the walls of Santa Barbara galleries for the month of February — Zack Paul: Inside Out at Sullivan Goss and Gina Werfel / Polyphonics at Jane Deering Gallery. Zack Paul works out of the Can(n)on Art Studios in Goleta and has been a fixture on the art scene here since his arrival from Argentina 10 years ago. The work’s hard edges and shifting perspectives take on a softer, more forgiving quality through Paul’s partially sun-bleached palette, and through the security of his compositional sense. In the ambitious, horizontally organized picture “Color Field, No. 2 - Rocks, Moss, and Oxide” (acrylic on board, 2011-12), Paul orchestrates a few dozen geometric shapes of black, gray, yellow, orange, and red into a complex spatial adventure. Although he has abandoned the traditional upright 90-degree grid in favor of a more acute set of angles, Paul shares with Piet Mondrian a feeling for the kinetic energy inherent in any successful two-dimensional rendering of an interior.

In the smaller images from the Realization Time series, such as the beguiling pink, red, black, and gray “Realization Time, No. 7” from 2011-12, Paul manages to unleash the expansive force of an apparently unlimited vector from within the confines of an actual surface that measures a mere 6”x6”. These smaller works are good metaphors for what makes this entire show so satisfying — the way Paul puts things together always seems to imply more than can be seen. Ultimately, his subject appears to be as much what’s behind or beyond the carefully prepared surfaces he presents as what is on them, and with any luck, we can look forward to following him further into the implicit in the future. In fact, since he is part of the upcoming Can(n)on Art Studios show at the Atkinson Gallery at SBCC that opens on February 24, the wait won’t be long at all. In the meantime, Inside Out qualifies as one of the most auspicious solo-show debuts by a Santa Barbara artist in recent memory.

Over at Jane Deering’s space on Canon Perdido Street, Gina Werfel’s colorful, exquisitely skillful improvisations in the manner of Willem de Kooning and Wassily Kandinsky assert that more traditionally gestural forms of abstract painting are very far from dead. Indeed, the biggest canvases in this exhibit — “Interlude” (2008) at 48”x48” and “Garland” (2011) at 52”x48” — are among the most confident and accomplished paintings in any genre currently on view in our city. Werfel teaches art and art history at UC Davis, and she has been at this for several decades, having earned her MFA from Columbia University’s School of Art in 1979. But that said, the idiom she has chosen is about as close to timeless as painting gets, and the command she exercises over color, composition, and negative space ravishes the eye. These images reward sustained viewing in a way that’s nearly cinematic and unfold in myriad directions and on multiple levels for periods of many minutes. Elsewhere in this spare, intelligently hung exhibit, Werfel’s works on paper inflect her painterly compositions with subtle, barely noticeable bits of collage that nevertheless alter the tone significantly. “Glimpse” (2011) and “Symphony” (2011) make a fantastic pair and cry out to be taken home to brighten some lucky person’s domestic interior.

As successful as she is at abstraction, Werfel does not content herself with only one idiom, and there are also a few examples of her landscape work on view. She summers in Western Europe and takes advantage of that happy fact to produce some elegant plein air paintings on paper. “Yacht” (2011), “Château La Napoule” (2011), and “View from La Napoule” (2011) all share the exuberant color sense that makes her oeuvre so distinctive and compelling.

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