In the history of American art, the role of the artist as a chronicler of nature has always been important. European artists accompanied expeditions to paint in detail the flora and fauna of the Americas as a documentation of travel and exploration. As America expanded westward across the continent, groups such as the Hudson River School created large-scale paintings depicting the grandeur of the American landscape. The work of Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran presented an excitement with which painter and viewer alike saw the pristine beauty of the landscape, as if for the first time. In these works nature was seen as awesome but not threatening and presented poetically rather than representationally.
Later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Winslow Homer and John Marin created formal works in watercolor. Thanks to their achievements, a medium once utilized for studies became accepted for the creation of formally resolved paintings. By depicting the forces of nature, particularly in the meeting of land and sea, these two artists established methods of representing the natural environment--methods which have influenced artists well into this century.
The paintings of Lee Weiss are part of this artistic tradition. Her watercolors are poetic, as are the works of the Hudson River School artists; but though she paints in large scale, she is not interested in capturing the "big picture" in the same way as those artists who recorded nature's wonders on a grand scale. Since the mid-1960s, Weiss has attempted to develop her work from small-scale depictions of large landscapes to monumental presentations of landscape details. In this way she presents the viewer with pieces of nature's wonders, the greater scene represented in microcosm.
Just as Homer and Marin exploited the ability of the watercolor medium to suggest subtle changes in atmosphere and light, Weiss provides clues to help determine the conditions of light, climate, and time of day and year, enabling the viewer to discern a great deal about the scene without observing the entire landscape.
Weiss's technical ability is unique and, like Homer and Marin, she has expanded the parameters of painting by making watercolor an appropriate medium for the creation of major works. Her paintings are infused with air, water, earth, light, and movement. Although they are masterfully executed, it is the spirit within these paintings that is exhilarating. It is clear the viewer is not looking at nature but into it through the artist's eyes.
Weiss chooses to paint in her studio, away from her subject matter, and does not work from sketches or slides. The scenes she paints do not exist per se. Instead they are created from various sights the artist has observed, distilled, and absorbed; she stores the details in her memory until she chooses to recall them in the studio. Away from the location of her subject, she is forced to consider the painting itself, to abstract from nature that which she wants to say.
Her paintings are about the essence and aspects of nature we take for granted. Many of these scenes could take place at the beach, a neighborhood park, or in our own back yards if we took the time to observe, as Weiss does on her walks in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum near her home. With the conviction of a conservationist, she emphasizes through her paintings that nature is fragile and could wither before our very eyes.
These spiritual landscapes are created by a woman whose father grew up in China, a father who raised his daughter on tales of Asia. Weiss is not interested in consciously creating pieces with an Asian sensibility. She distills details by showing the larger segments of nature in the smaller objects making up the whole. When Weiss represents the essence of an entire mountain in an image of a few stones, her work relates to the millennia of tradition in Asian art.
Having developed the techniques necessary to effectively communicate her impressions, she continues to create works of power and relevance. Lee Weiss has developed a unique way of examining the world around her and extracting a poetic beauty from her observations that simultaneously reiterates the history of American landscape painting and advances it.