|Dog's Best Friend
Time Out New York, 13 April 2006, p. 79
13 April 2006
"William Wegman has the last laugh at the Brooklyn Museum"
Back in the anything-goes days of the early 1970s, Vito Acconci masturbated under a gallery floor, Chris Burden nailed himself to a Volkswagen and William Wegman made his stomach sing "Mmmmm-Hooo!" Even before Wegman became a world-renowned dog photographer, his work had a whimsy that set him apart from his edgier peers (and that would eventually land his art on Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and of course all those calendars, postcards and T-shirts). Yet his early pieces clearly grew out of a context of experimentation with performance and process, concerns with language, duration, and the body.
"Funney/Strange," Wegman's packed-to-the-gills retrospective organized by Trevor Fairbrother at the Brooklyn Museum, does justice to the artist's inimitable vaudeville-populist sensibility while making a good argument for his Conceptualist credo. Paying scant attention to chronology, the show follows Wegman as he bounces between mediums and styles: dry, faux-documentary photographs and tossed-off cartoonish doodles, lush color Polaroids and elaborate mock historical paintings.
What remains consistent throughout is a bemused and surprisingly flexible deadpan. Drolly suppressing affect, Wegman puts a sad-sack spin on everything he touches, reveling in odd visual games. This tone emerges fully in his pioneering videos from the 1970s of brief gags, many over almost before the joke fully registers (man walks into room with suitcase; sits on chair beside lamp; announces he has to go; picks up chair and lamp, leaves suitcase).
These early pieces owe much of their pathos and charm to the way they read as parables of an artist alone in the studio trying to create, but going a little stir crazy, inventing private games and one-sided conversations. In Wegman's world, the borders between work, play and obsessive behavior -- always a little fuzzy in art-making anyway -- are blurred beyond recognition, which is why dogs make such perfect accomplices. Poker-faced Man Ray, Wegman's famous first Weimaraner, supposedly became a subject by just hanging around the studio, getting his nose into things.
It was during Man Ray's final years in the late '70s that Wegman began producing the large-scale color Polaroids that launched him into the mainstream. Seeing the images in person -- many of them all too familiar from countless reproductions -- it's almost shocking how lovely they are, all shimmering with texture and formal elegance. While they function primarily as genre parodies, they also offer the last thing one would expect from Wegman's earlier work: mastery. The Polaroids allow the artist to exercise a visual intelligence that their low-rent, idea-based forerunners muffled.
Wegman trained as a painter and has continued the practice throughout his career. The canvases on view here, however, tend to get lost in the shuffle. Several mute examples from the '80s -- pastiches of motel art and schoolbook illustration -- are little more than curiosities. Newer efforts are more impressive -- at least initially. In one recent series, collaged postcards of tourist vistas and Old Master reproductions are extended out into impossible scenes, mixing high and low and incompatible perspectives. They capture your interest, but don't hold it for long: You get the joke, then move on.
Such impatience might be inevitable. Immersed in Wegman's s rhythms, you become greedy for punch lines, then paradoxically exhausted by the frequency with which they arrive. There's little relief from all the comic relief here. But given how many small delights the show offers, this is the complaint of a killjoy. For more than three decades, Wegman has pulled off a nearly impossible feat -- he's a crowd-pleasing Conceptual artist, a funny and strange thing to be.
- Steven Stern