Bondo Wyszpolski

Tracey Weiss challenges viewers to confront assumptions about art

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Tracey Weiss

Tracey Weiss. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“It’s kind of ironic,” says Tracey Weiss. “I started as a painter, I discovered ceramics, and now I make ceramic sculptures of paintings. I’ve come full-circle.”

This is going to sound a little confusing at first, but bear with me. There’s a big payoff at the end.

“I’m letting ceramics pose as paintings so they’re taken more seriously. To some extent it’s tongue-in-cheek, but I like exploring on a very formal level that fine line between painting and sculpture. They seem very different, but in a way I’ve brought them to where they’ve come very close to each other.”

Weiss lives next door to a Thai restaurant in Redondo Beach. We sat in her garage-studio on a rainy afternoon and spoke about her newest work, the concepts that give it life, and about her upcoming group exhibition.

“Lime Slide,” by Tracey Weiss

“Lime Slide,” by Tracey Weiss

“The show in Manhattan Beach,” she continues, “is an abstract show, and I always find that (classification) amusing because a lot of people view my work as abstract when in fact it’s painting and sculpture. As painting, it’s abstract; as sculpture it’s representational.” She laughs. “I’m trying to do everything at once.”

And not without some success. Weiss is displaying half a dozen pieces in “Southern Exposure 2,” which highlights the work of six South Bay artists, all of whom reside in Hermosa, Manhattan, and Redondo Beach. Ann Martin is the guest curator, and the show (details below) opens tomorrow evening.

Lace Up” (detail), by Tracey Weiss

Paintings are illusionary, but Tracey Weiss trumps us one better. When we look at her canvasses… Well, that’s the thing; what looks like a canvas isn’t a canvas at all, it’s ceramic. But, as Weiss explains, “even though it’s made in ceramic it’s really talking about painting in the art world.”

As the artist sees it, “in the fine arts arena painting is considered the best, the grandfather of the art world. Generally speaking, it’s held as the highest and revered as the most important art. And ceramics is really the low man on the totem pole” – to the point where people question if it really isn’t craft rather than art. What Weiss has done is to tweak this accepted hierarchy. “If ceramics posed as painting, is it going to be looked at as art then?

“That’s how this idea started,” she says of her current work, and perhaps – as the viewer – we don’t know if we’re looking at a cat or a dog. When we stand close, does it meow or bark? To blur even further that fine line between painting and sculpture, Weiss doesn’t usually paint on her “paintings.”

“They’re weird as sculpture,” she says, “even though they’re sculptures of paintings. I refer to them as super-paintings because I like them to do things that painting can’t do.”

Making her way

In the fall, it’ll be 10 years since Tracey Weiss moved from Northern California to attend Cal State, L.A., where she earned her Master’s in Fine Arts.

“Red Zip,” by Tracey Weiss

That turn of events might have surprised her much-younger self: “I actually didn’t plan to go to college at all, because I wanted to be an artist and artists don’t go to school.” She laughs. “How little I knew.”

But why Los Angeles?

“I wanted to move into this area because it’s really the place to be if you’re an artist. Northern California is not bad, but L.A.’s much better in terms of the art world. It’s more competitive with New York.”

Weiss says that from an early age she knew she wanted to be an artist, but it was still some time before she found a means of expression most conducive to her talents.

“I went through every facet of art. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a cartoonist. When I was in high school I thought I’d go into commercial art or advertising because that’s all I really wanted to do. I didn’t know about the fine arts world.” Her parents were always supportive, although it seems that family trips to the museum and other cultural events were infrequent. It was only when Weiss was in college that “I had professors who encouraged me to go into the fine art world and taught me what that was all about.”

As a beginning artist, Weiss was a representational painter.

“I was probably 20 when I discovered ceramics,” she says. “So I did sculpture mainly through college. When you’re in school you kind of do a little bit of everything. And I like that – I didn’t want to be strictly a sculptor or strictly a ceramics sculptor. For me, it’s much more about the idea and the concept; so, whatever medium works, that’s the medium I’m going to use. In that sense, I’m sort of a jack of all trades. But when I [embarked upon] this idea that I’ve been working on for the last several years, it had to be in ceramics, so that’s what I’ve been using.”

She elaborates: Many artists, of all persuasions, fall in love with their medium, and remain faithful to it no matter what. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Weiss says, “it’s just that I’m not one of those people. I enjoy clay very much, but if I came up with something that called for a photography series then I would use that.”

However, that painting-sculpture thing of hers, which has intrigued Weiss since graduate school, continues to occupy her thoughts. And why is that? Simply this:

“I haven’t worked through it.”

Sometimes a great notion

It’s still raining, there’s an occasional gust of wind that tries to reshuffle the umbrellas, and the cloudy skies are reminiscent of Courbet’s turbulent seascapes painted in the north of France. But here in the garage-studio, the art and the influences behind it are markedly different.

Periodically, Weiss will take a breather from what she calls her “preliminary body of work,” and try her hand at something else. “It just physically got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore,” she says of her ceramic paintings. “I really believe in the concepts and I don’t want to stop making them, but sometimes I’m physically bored with making them.”

Understandably, she needed a brief diversion from her endeavors. So, a couple years back, Weiss executed a series of “macabre” paint tubes.

“I think of them as a vacation from my work,” she acknowledges, “and they ended up being relatively successful. They’ve gotten more play than I thought they would.”

None of the paint tubes will be in “Southern Exposure 2,” as she was never committed to an in-depth exploration of them, but pictures of the series can be found on the artist’s website and – this is all that counts, really! – they’ve intrigued this writer. What they are, essentially, are recreations of paint tubes that have been partially opened or peeled back to reveal teeth or ribs or viscera. Are these paint tubes really living creatures? But what this viewer begins to conjecture is that essentially anything can emerge from a tube or several tubes of paint working together: a portrait of Andrew Jackson, a waterfall in Venezuela, the battle of Waterloo strewn with bodies. It’s almost a metaphor for the creative process. We begin with something very basic and then – like the universe contained within the seed of the Big Bang – anything can emerge.

Had Tracey Weiss found her influences in Paris or Barcelona, perhaps she would have continued and developed her experiment with the paint tubes, but it’s not Delacroix or Gaudí that she cites, it’s Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

“Originally the works started out as referencing the New York School,” she says, alluding to the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. “A large red piece that I did for my graduate show was supposed to refer to a Rothko.

“I have art history references in a lot of my work. It’s something you don’t need to get, because most people aren’t going to. It’s a little extra bonus for artists; it’s like a little inside joke.” Weiss then mentions one of her pieces called “Red Zip,” which is blue with a red stripe.

“The ‘zips’ are those vertical stripes. In the ‘50s, Barnett Newman did a whole series of paintings and he referred to them as zips. So that’s my little ode to Barnett Newman. I like to do little things like that.”

“Torn Trio” (detail), by Tracey Weiss

In his book, The End of Art, Donald Kuspit defines Newman’s zip as “a vivid grand gesture the vertical length of the canvas, a kind of punctuation mark of existence, signifying primal howling in the cosmic void, anguished recognition of the originality of being.”

“Abstract art,” Weiss adds, “is one of those things that you definitely benefit from by having an education about it, because people always look at it and go, ‘Oh, what is that supposed to mean?’ It’s not supposed to mean anything. It is what it is. It’s a painting of paint in a sense. But like those Rothkos it’s their actual presence. They’re almost like sculptures because it’s their presence as an object, really, that he’s going for. When you’re in front of a Rothko, it’s completely different than looking at a Rothko in a book. Well, any painting is, but some more than others.”

The abstract expressionists – including Clyfford Still and Cy Twombly – tended to work large, and Weiss is right there with them.

“There are logistical reasons [why] I work in the scale that I do,” she says, “but I like – especially in my earlier work in this series – that the pieces were very large. When I was in graduate school, all the work was big like that. That was because I wanted that presence that the abstract expressionists had. They had very large work and it was big and loud and in your face.

“But,” she points out, referring to her proclivity to combine numerous smaller units so that they add up to something greater than their parts, “I like the idea that as these individual objects they’re kind of these small, finely crafted objects like sculpture. But when they all get together they have a presence.”

That’s what Weiss finds attractive, the detailed components and, when you step back, the bigger picture and the accumulative impact.

“I’m trying to cover all the bases, you know?”

An example of her large-scale work, and one that falls into her category of super-painting because, as you remember, “I like them to do things that painting can’t do,” is “Lime Slide.” She made it for a show last year.

“Essentially, the painting is sliding off of the canvas,” Weiss says, “and you can’t do that in painting.”

But large works like this can pose a problem.

“Realistic elements come into play and most galleries can’t accommodate that or they don’t want to. Or, if you get into a show, you can show one big piece or four medium pieces. And you’re not going to sell those big pieces very often, either.”

This brings us to her recent endeavors. One series seems to depict torn canvasses; another has the appearance of paintings that have been physically broken and then imperfectly reassembled: “Obviously you can’t break a painting and repair it.”

Her newest work – a five-panel piece, and it’s featured in the show – gives the impression of canvasses that have been ripped and then stitched back together. A question that Weiss continuously puts to herself is this: “What can I make these [works] do that paintings aren’t able to do, so that they’re actually better than painting? Not just ‘as good as’ painting, but better.”

And it’s a question she’s been finding different ways to answer.

A word from the Weiss is sufficient

Tracey Weiss has been teaching art since graduate school, essentially an introduction to ceramics. She’s held a part-time position at Cerritos College for a few years, and also, closer to home, at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center. The latter is more informal, and no one’s academic future rides on how well they do.

“I don’t really encourage them to go into art,” she says of her students, but she does make it clear that it’s healthy for the creative spirit and for the mind and that one needn’t be an artist to make art.

“It’s a hard profession,” she acknowledges, but we both know that pursuing a career in the arts does not tend to be a rational decision. And if someone seeks her advice on whether or not he or she should become an artist?

“I tell them,” Weiss replies, “if you’re asking me if you should do it, then you shouldn’t.”

Southern Exposure 2 also features work by Jessica Alley, Mike Gaines, Simon Ouwerkerk, Linda Jo Russell, and Marlene Sanaye Yamada. The show opens tomorrow with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Creative Arts Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, and will be on view through March 25. Hours, Tuesday and Thursday from 2 to 6 p.m., Wednesday from 4 to 8 p.m., and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. Call (310) 802-5440 or go to citymb.info. ER

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