An Internet friend came up with a little game that artist Andrew Werth enjoys playing. He reaches for the nearest book — making sure it’s not the “coolest” one — opens it to page 56, goes to the fifth sentence, then sets it to his status on Facebook. Recently, he tried this exercise and wound up with his hands on “Teach Yourself to Dream,” by David Fontana. It was a bit of synchronicity for Werth since he was preparing to exhibit his large, acrylic-on-wood painting “Expectation” at Trenton’s Gallery 125, in a group show titled “Dreaming.”
“I found this book, which I thought was a practical way to get into lucid dreaming, with a lot of different visualization techniques you can do to direct your dreams,” Werth says. “I’ve always been interested in dreaming, but more in philosophy of mind, how we make sense of the world, what happens in our unconscious, what happens in sleep. And of course, dreams are an important part of that.”
“Dreaming” features 32 works in various media by 20 artists from the Trenton Artists’ Workshop Association, based on the theme of dreaming. Curated by Gallery 125 manager Joanne Donnelly Seglem, the exhibit captures imaginative and surrealistic depictions of the dream world and gives a glimpse into the artists’ hidden fantasies, ideas, and emotions, which range from silly and childlike to emotive and contemplative. “Dreaming” opens with a reception on Friday, August 14, and runs through Friday, September 4.
A West Windsor resident, Werth was not only inspired by dreams and dream philosophies, but by the wood itself on which “Expectation” is painted. At 18-by-60 inches the heavy hunk of wood was once a table top and still has the spacers attached to its back, so it hangs several inches off the wall. “It was a side or end table, something that I had in my apartment for years,” Werth says. “The table legs weren’t holding up but it was such beautiful wood, I didn’t want to discard it. I mostly paint on canvas or Ampersand pre-gessoed panels, so this makes a nice surface, something different.”
Like most of his works, which might be described as abstract “mindscapes,” “Expectation” has a maze-like, brainy quality to it — in fact, the myriad squiggles might even remind you of the brain’s surface. With his passion for cognitive science and philosophy, it’s no surprise that Werth’s paintings have an essence of “brainiac” to them. “(These subjects) definitely inform my brainy paintings,” he says. “The book might be talking about a topic and I’ll start thinking, ‘that’s an interesting title for a painting, but how to capture it?’ Sometimes it will be through form, sometimes through color, or even something even looser.”
In his artist’s statement, he says: “In particular, my recent paintings deal with the embodied mind, a contemporary theory of mind which says that the way we think about the world is directly shaped by the physical nature of our bodies and that our abstract reasoning processes are largely metaphorical.”
Werth points to Douglas Hofstadter, author, philosopher, and professor of cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington as a major influence, especially his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Godel, Escher, and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.” And yes, you might see a bit of M.C. Escher’s influence in Werth’s paintings as well, with their tiny, interconnected brushstrokes. The artist says childhood was another influence for him, a time when he would absorb himself in his pencil-on-paper “brainiac” mazes.
Although Werth enjoyed creating Escher-like doodles as a child, he recalls having to be “dragged to art museums, kicking and screaming” by his parents. He grew up in a handful of towns in central and northern New Jersey, notably Teaneck and Freehold. His father was in market research for Westwood One and other radio networks, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. But she was determined to inoculate some culture into Werth and his brother, so the family often visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum and other landmark museums and galleries in Manhattan.
“I liked taking art classes in the lower grades but then it fell away from my life and I focused instead on software and technology,” he says. In 1991, Werth earned a B.S. in computer engineering from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, part of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In 1992, he followed that up with a B.S. in information networking from the university’s Information Networking Institute. Werth, 39, worked successfully in software development for Bellcore in Piscataway from 1991 to 1995, then for CNET in Bridgewater until 1999, but found himself on the management side of the company, which he felt was less stimulating.
“Software development can be very creative, but then I got into management and got really burned out by that,” he says. “I found myself spending all my time in meetings. That’s when I decided I wanted to get back into something more creative.”
He moved into Manhattan early in 2000, and vigorously began taking art and photography classes at the School of Visual Arts, the Art Students League, the International Center of Photography, and the New School. Werth also studied philosophy of mind and cognitive psychology at the New School.
In 2004, he had a piece in a group show at the Salmagundi Club and his work has appeared in several shows at Artists Space in New York. Werth has had an especially fortunate run in this area, and has exhibited in a variety of galleries in central New Jersey, particularly Artworks, the Ellarslie Museum, and Gallery 125 in Trenton; the gallery at Mercer County Community College; Conant Hall Gallery at Educational Testing Service in Princeton (where he had a solo show); the Johnson Education Center of the D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton; and Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, where he is a member. Werth has also shown his work at the Philadelphia Sketch Club, among other non-local venues.
Four years ago, he settled in West Windsor with his now-wife Karen Yee, who is in management at Ortho-McNeill-Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Titusville. “We both wanted to get out of the city,” Werth says. “As soon as we moved here, I jumped right into the arts community. The first month I was here, I had a painting accepted at Gallery 125, titled ‘Awakening from a Dream from a Problem Not Yet Solved.’” He says he has left software development behind and is focusing on art as a full-time career. “I’m working on it anyway,” Werth says.
Next up is a two-person show at Artists’ Gallery, which opens on Friday, September 11. Titled “Internal/External,” the exhibit will feature Werth’s paintings alongside works by Marc Reed.
In addition to author Hofstadter, Werth’s influences include Paul Cezanne, Chuck Close, and especially Oscar Bleumner, noted for his boldly simplified geometric compositions and intense, color-infused landscapes. “I first saw his work at the Whitney, really liked it and wanted to learn more about it,” Werth says. “A few years later, the Whitney had a huge Bleumner retrospective.”
There’s an element of rumination as the eye attempts to follow Werth’s thousands of hand-painted marks of varying colors on multiple layers of paint — you get almost hypnotized focusing in on the canvas. “When I decided to get back into art, I asked myself, ‘what would be personal for me?’ In Manhattan, I saw shows where mark-making was an important part of the piece, that artists were making valid artwork from repetition. I realized this would be a personal form of expression for me, and would also make my paintings pretty distinct. You can recognize my work.”
Creating the paintings sends the artist into a meditative state as well. “Since it’s one stroke at a time, it absolutely is a meditative process,” Werth says. “In fact, I get into the ‘flow,’ this state where you’re so focused you lose track of time. You might have heard of musicians and athletes getting into ‘flow’ as well. When the painting process is going at its best, that’s what’s happening to me.”
Art Exhibit, Gallery 125, 125 South Warren Street, Trenton. Friday, August 14, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Opening reception for “Dreaming,” an art exhibit featuring 32 works in various media based on the theme of dreaming, by 20 artists including Andrew Werth. On view through Friday, September 4. Andrew Werth on the Web: www.andrewwerth.com. 609-989-9119 or www.gallery125.com.
Gallery hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.