Thriving on Brushes with Nature

By JAMES AUER, Journal Sentinel art critic, Milwaukee
'Lee Weiss: A Life in Art', Charles Allis Art Museum

Lee Weiss most likely would be the last person in the world to describe herself as a mystic, but her watercolor paintings - 30 years of which are featured in this engaging "semi-retrospective" - have much of the transient loveliness of a spiritual revelation.
For one thing, most of her images simply emerge out of the act of art making.
Weiss works from neither sketches nor photographs. She paints, wet on wet, flipping her sheets of paper on a table in her Madison studio. Finally, she decides which side to finish off, and brushes it accordingly.

The result is a gossamer evocation of nature in many of its idealized phases, a body of work that hovers, tremulously undecided, between the poles of naturalism and abstraction. Turner or Pollock? Weiss seems not to care. Hers is an intuitive rather than a conscious process.

Yet control - critical, rather than physical - is very much a part of her modus operandi. How else to explain the family feeling that unites these poetic riffs on fog and leafy branches, brilliancy and blur? Clearly, there is an iron hand inside the velvet glove that holds Weiss' brush.

These internal ironies - underscored in some three dozen works on paper, completed between 1974 and this year - make her current show in the Allis' Great Hall and Mansion galleries well worth visiting.
Chronologies are always arbitrary and often questionable, but this one seems to suggest that Weiss has, over the past 30 years, moved gradually, and with a certain knowing grace, from big-scale panoramas to close-up studies of natural minutiae.

As a result, she has grown increasingly stylized, but always within a framework of perceived reality. No easy game, but she's played it well and quite courageously.
Among the early works, "Red Oak, Turning" (1974) stands out. The winner of the prestigious John Singer Sargent Award, the piece points up Weiss' ability to orchestrate close-valued and delicate, yet startlingly well defined, colors.

The painting is not only a study of an oak tree turning red in early autumn; it is a visible demonstration of the power of watercolors, intelligently utilized, to cement a moment as well as a mood.

A later work, "Wild Asters" (2001), conveys much the same delicacy of light and dimension. It is, however, less an homage to a transitory stage in the life of a great tree and more a tapestry of muted tonalities, skillfully committed to water-soaked paper.
By contrast, "Snow Laden" (1994) seems more illustrational and less an evocation of a psychic state. Similarly, "Dancing Pine" (1995) is so convincing, in its understated emulation of the act of seeing, that we strain to discover additional detail - which just isn't there.

In her work, Weiss, forthright and energetic yet private and perfectionist, seems to have achieved the goal of being both commercially viable and artistically acceptable - no easy task in our harshly judgmental age.

From the June 18, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Lee Weiss: Watercolors








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