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Smiles and symbolism in Weiss' happy world


Howie Lee Weiss' big, bold charcoal drawings feature so many oversized smiling, laughing and generally happy faces that at first the viewer feels surrounded by a gigglefest. There's a temptation to see these as pleasant, somewhat repetitious images and to move on. But Weiss is a serious artist, with a serious philosophy to communicate.

There are three typical elements of a Weiss drawing, seen in various combinations: the human being represented by the face or the full figure; plants, which stand for the natural world and creativity; and a grid-like pattern of squares in various sizes. This last element can be seen as symbolic of several things: the man-made, industrial and technological world; the dull pattern of everyday life which we humans must break out of if we're to lead creative, fulfilling lives; and even abstract art.

These elements come together most tellingly in the drawing titled "Life." Beside the centerpiece smiling face, a full-length figure is clutched by a sad-faced figure holding a stick. An old man creeps along in one corner and two others, one appearing dead, lie on a grid. Above sprouts a leafy growth, while grids populate the background.

Care and woe, old age and death will overtake us all. The only answer is a dedication to the gifts that life has bestowed on us. This message is reinforced by a group of symbols shown in smaller and larger versions at the right of the image -- small and large discs, plants, constructions, rectangles. They suggest the biblical parable of the talents -- that one must make one's talents flourish, not bury them.

Like medieval artists, Weiss makes pictures heavy with symbolism, employs figures of more than one scale, and often shows more than one incident in an image in order to tell a moral story.

In "Happy No. 3" -- alternately titled "Adolescence" -- a young figure stands beside the central head, from which sprouts lush foliage like ideas sprouting in the mind. The young man may think life is forever, but two small figures in the background tell us that from crawling to walking with a cane isn't a long time.

In "Exploration," two figures crawl in different directions across a grid that fills the background. Here as elsewhere, Weiss' grids seem to stand for the necessary but humdrum aspects of life, or perhaps the material aspects, which we must deal with but shouldn't allow to push the creative side out of the picture. As Weiss is a figurative artist, we may also take these grids to represent abstract art as something of a dead end.

There are many other messages here, that deal with issues from parenting to the conquest of space.

But while these drawings often present cautionary tales, they really are happy in the final analysis, for they reflect Weiss' essential optimism and faith in the vitality of the creative life.

Art Review

What: "Howie Lee Weiss: Happy Faces and Lively Plants"

Where: Jewish Community Center, 5700 Park Heights Ave.

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, 3 p.m.-5 p.m. and 6:30-8 p.m. Wednesdays, 3-5 p.m. Thursdays, noon-2:30 p.m. Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 1.

Call: (410) 542-4900.

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