Janice Weissman and the art of replicating a living canvas
“Much like wearing jewelry or designer clothes, tattooing has become a personal message about a woman’s identity… I am the re-teller of their stories.”
And I am now the re-teller of Janice Urnstein Weissman’s story, a figurative painter with a sensual eye for detail, color, form, and the seductive interplay of light and dark. In her middle 60s, and living in a spacious home high above the Palos Verdes Art Center, Weissman has followed her artistic passions for over 40 years. She’s meticulous, a perfectionist with her brush, and her large canvases routinely require six months of hard work.
The pictures? They’ve been exhibited worldwide, from Milan to Miami, from Paris to Israel and Toronto. Reviews have been published in Art Week, Art in America, and American Art Collector.
When it’s the final result that matters, the formal education does not, but for those who are impressed by labels and diplomas, Weissman received her Master of Arts from the University of Cincinnati and her Bachelors from the Kansas City Art Institute. She also attended the Skowhegan School of Painting. In reply to my question, she says: “I’m originally from Saint Louis, Missouri.”
Which reminds me of that Steve Martin joke, where he’s on the highway, thumbing a ride. A car pulls up, and the driver rolls down his window to ask where the young man is headed: “Saint Louis?” “No,” says the hitchhiker. “Steve Martin.”
And now we’ll get serious.
The body beautiful
Janice Weissman has been painting heavily-tattooed female nudes (and some male nudes, too, let’s be fair) since 1996, which is probably about the time tattoos gained greater social acceptance. One could say she’s a pioneer. But to begin at the headwaters of this painterly journey we must travel upstream a number of years to when Weissman marveled at the one-hundred-year-old papier-mâché doll torsos dangling from the ceiling of the New York Doll Hospital. In her mind she likened them to the fragments of classical sculpture she’d seen during her time in Greece. The wheels began to turn.
“I decided that what you didn’t show was more important than if you showed everything, so I started doing these torsos because they were very mysterious. By putting colored lights on them,” she adds, it was as if they were “transformed into glass or marble, [with] different kinds of classical antiquities.
“I did those for about five years,” Weissman continues, noting that she “decided it was a little impersonal without showing the heads and the full body.” With the sensibility of a Chardin, an Ingres, a Vermeer or even a Balthus, she furthered her skills as a figure painter while insisting upon “something that would again have a patina, a surface that would be very unusual. I thought of doing the tattoo series because the whole torso is a painted design, which again has a fantastic patina.”
One of the ways in which the paintings of torsos influenced the earliest paintings of tattooed people is in the cropping.
The paintings are closely cropped, Weissman says, “because I wanted to zoom in on the tattoos and the intricate designs and themes of the tattoos. There’s little negative space. It gives it more of a contemporary look.”
Her newest, and as yet unfinished painting, which we examine in her studio before discussing Jean-Léon Gérôme and his show at the Getty last summer, is also tightly cropped. But other, more recent work, gives her figures room to breathe.
As often as not, Weissman includes two or more figures in each painting. The pictures tend to be more alluring if there is a marked contrast between one model and the next.
“I also juxtapose dichotomies,” she says, “in the sense that I will paint a nude with just not that much tattoos, juxtaposed against a person who’s very heavily tattooed.” In other words, the interplay or even clash of opposites.
Weissman also embarked on a series that incorporated her fascination with kimonos.
“I always loved Japanese kimonos. Again, we’re talking about pattern, color, detail – and I was so intrigued that I would juxtapose the figure against a kimono so that the pattern was off instead of on; and then I would juxtapose, let’s say, two women wearing kimonos, one woman being totally tattooed in the front and the other woman clothed, closed within the kimono.
“From the kimono series,” Weissman explains, “I started doing the tattoo series with the elements – air, sky, earth and water. I found a model that to me looked like she had lilies on her back, so I placed her in water. To me it was like a human form with lilies floating in the water, only it was a human form with lilies on her. It was fascinating to be able to submerge her partway into water so that she looked like she was a floating lily in water.”
This led to other figures enveloped by the elements, including one woman, her back to us, seated on the ground and yet appearing to stretch away from us. She is tattooed with battling warships, 18th or 19th century perhaps, the billowing smoke from their cannon fire seeping into and merging with the clouds in the sky. It’s a beautiful adornment, exquisitely rendered.
Out of the woodwork
Janice Weissman doesn’t wander into seamy bars in Long Beach or San Pedro in search of her models, but meets them at tattoo conventions.
“My models are all professional people,” she says; “they are tattoo artists, they’re kick boxers; very creative people, and it’s just an honor to be able to paint them.” She pauses. “I’m the voyeur looking into their world, and documenting their tattoos.”
Mostly these are young people, and I’m guessing she means those who are in their 20s and 30s.
In response to the comment that as people age their skin changes, she replies: “That’s a reason why they want me to paint them, because the color could fade and the muscle tone starts slumping. I’m painting them in their prime where the beauty is shining through their body.”
It’s also a time when her subjects are extremely proud of their tattoos, and presumably no one has buyer’s remorse.
Weissman mentions a model named Sarah who, in a tribute to her mother, Teresa, had the image of St. Teresa tattooed onto her leg. Another model, Jennifer, who considers her body to be a well-adorned temple, has it graced with images that reflect her inner power. “It’s ritualistic,” Weissman says, “in the sense that they are becoming unique people and finding themselves. And it’s a kind of rite of passage of womanhood because of the independence that they achieve.”
She recalls one male model who carefully worked out in advance, on a mannequin, the design that he wanted so that he would have a full grasp of the end result. “It takes years sometimes for people to decide [precisely what designs or patterns they want], because once it’s on their skin they’re not removing it. They really think about what’s important to them in their life, and so it’s a major commitment on their part.
“It’s also a major commitment on my part because I’m documenting their tattoos, but I’m also trying to create a work of art.”
These are the men and women who aren’t simply commemorating an occasion or a loved one with a pocket-sized tattoo placed randomly on the body, but those who wish to make a complete personal statement with the images they wear.
“They are actually becoming three-dimensional paintings,” Weissman says, “and I’m doing a painting of a painting, a painting within a painting, and I find that very intriguing.”
Matters of importance
We can easily lose ourselves in the intricacies of Weissman’s large canvases.
“I’m very detail-oriented,” she says. “What’s very important to me is to really get into the aesthetics of the pattern and the jewel-like quality of the color, and I consider myself a colorist… I would say, also, [that] people like Vermeer and Chardin, [with] their chiaroscuro, their light and dark enveloping the figures, and the fleshy, beautiful skin tones of Rubens, are very important to me.
“The form is foremost, besides the tattoos. The tattoos are lying on the body, but the three-dimensional form of the figure is very important; and the light is very important to me, enveloping the figures.”
The way in which Weissman creates her works harks back to the Renaissance, but then it embraces a contemporary outlook as well. Again, it’s the interplay and the juxtaposing of opposites that in the end balance one another, and create a visual dialogue with the viewer.
“The whole process of your ideas is a voyage,” Weissman says, “of finding the model and then finding how this model fits into its environment, and how these models fit together. Besides manually doing the painting it’s the whole process of finding these people that’s so intriguing. The voyage of discovery is wonderful.”
Our conversation draws to a close, but Janice Weissman adroitly sums up what she’s been devoting her life to.
“I’m committed to painting people who are committed to their art, which is their body, because to me their body is art and that’s important to me.”