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Distilling the Subtle Potential Of a Moment in Time

By Marlena Donahue / March 12, 1992



THE paintings of Beth Weissman have the exact and perfectly worked verisimilitude we tend to associate with photorealism. Though Weissman does in fact work from photographs taken of a subject, to label her work strict photorealism is a misnomer and would not do adequate justice to the emotional and creative scope of the work.

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Camera in hand, equipped with the eye of the painter and the heart of the poet, Weissman canvases the world around her. Whether by its striking formal features - the light and dark patterning that carries our eye into the lonely life of the female diner in "L.A. or by its strange emotional valence - the tired anticipation in the eyes of the old potbellied man in "Pillars a scene will grab Weissman's imagination. She then takes several always clandestine photos of her subject ("If I am seen and the subjec t's ego is engaged, I nearly always discard the photo and scratch the idea; I'm after only the spontaneous emotional instant," says Weissman). The resulting painting has as its impetus the moment that Weissman froze in time with her lens, but it has at its core the creative and symbolic selections that Weissman makes along the way ... the things she leaves out, the things she adds or exaggerates, every nuance she selectively and skillfully weaves into these handsomely executed paintings such that the utterl y common becomes filled with open-ended portent.

It is in the translation from observed reality to canvas that Weissman changes an exact copy of nature into her personal picture of the world, a distillation of the subtle potentialities any moment holds; the unspoken message in the gaze, the hint of body language, the hidden longing and isolation we all try to hide. In "Chess," for instance, she spied two older men playing chess, but she did not give us a mere reportorial snapshot. She made the painting a diptych so that each old man in intense concentr ation inhabits his own insular canvas. Each is bent over something which appears to be located in the space between them. But Weissman makes the astute decision to leave out the chess board that they ponder, we only see the stopped man. Thus, a slice of everyday life becomes a poignant visual paradox; how is it that they look at the same thing but seem so detached, how is it that their physical proximity is so close yet they appear to not even be aware of the other's presence? How is it that they stare so d iligently at nothing?

By making these sorts of selective changes in nearly all of her paintings, she takes her works out of the realm of the specific where most photo realist work tends to take place, and gives her scenes an out-of-context timeless quality replete with meaning for all of us: We all play at the game of life often without ever actually communicating or touching one another in any real way, we all toil at the same task often not even understanding or seeing the target of our endeavors. In these sorts of strategi es we find in Weissman a touch of the artist she greatly respects, Edward Hopper.

If Weissman were just a clever visual storyteller who could make the commonplace ring with mystery, we might still not call her an accomplished painter. The fact is that she handles paint with great care and expressive potential: It is thick and quick exactly where it should be and flat and still in just those places where composition and narrative call for that.

We are first drawn to the paintings of Beth Weissman for their virtuoso craft, because they so accurately recreate the outer world we know well; however, the paintings hold our interest and engage us because of their uncanny ability to hint at inner worlds we strive to know better.