Wegman Has His Day, and It Hasn't All Gone to the Dogs

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

Dog owners will approach the Smithsonian American Art Museum's William Wegman retrospective with some trepidation. Wegman is best known for his meticulously posed, large-scale Polaroids of Weimaraners, which have proved popular enough with the public to turn him into the Dog Guy, into a brand, an industry and an artist famous enough to have his works on popular magazine covers. Anyone who has spent time with dogs, however, knows how thoroughly their charms bypass reason, which makes dog art particularly hard to see objectively.

And there's something about his dogs, their sleek physicality and almost lascivious love of the camera that feels strangely objectified. In most pictures of dogs (or babies, kittens, puppies, seals and pandas), the dog is doing most of the work. The artist merely commodifies cuteness, which doesn't seem much like real artistic work.

But the exhibition, mounted in the newly refurbished Old Patent Office Building, doesn't put the dogs front and center. Rather, it weaves them into the larger obsessions that have governed Wegman's work, much of it conceptual, over the past 35 years. If you need the dogs, this exhibition, originally organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., has 'em; but it also has examples of Wegman's early photography and drawings, about two hours of his video work, and his more recent forays into painting, often using found images, especially postcards. It makes the case that there is much more to Wegman than Weimaraners, but is the much more enough?

Wegman's first dog star was named Man Ray, a clever nod to an artist whose restlessness and taste for the surreal deeply influenced Wegman's work. "I don't need one thing, but two things," said Man Ray. Two things could be put together to create "a sort of plastic poetry."

At its best, Wegman's art revels in what can come of assembling two things (or more than two things) and drawing wry connections between them. A 1970 pair of black-and-white prints show the artist's studio, in one image with only one of various items (a paint can, board, flowerpot); in its paired photograph, those items (and others) are doubled. The image is shot from a distance, the lighting is cold and flat, and nothing about the scene invites the viewer to play the child's game of looking for the little riddle of single and double objects. Its objectivity deflates the invitation to play, which curiously makes the game more appealing to people who don't like this sort of simple-minded fun.

That basic tension between an endlessly inventive sense of whimsy and an aggressively amateurish quality to the actual work plays out through almost all of Wegman's art. The photographs that play with doubling suggest that an unseen hand has altered the photographic space. That unseen hand is made comically visible in a 1997-98 video called "Log Cabin Cinnamon Toast," an amusing parody of a cooking show, in which a hand in a black glove is instructed to move around the various things necessary to make toast, though the toast never gets made. Like his other videos, it's funny and sophomoric.

Sometimes sophomores strike gold, though. In a 1972-73 video titled "Deodorant," the artist sprays his armpit with an unbroken stream of aerosol deodorant, intoning a deadpan testimonial as the liquid gathers and drips: "It feels real nice going on, and smells good, and keeps me dry all day." Deodorant is all about social likability, about inoffensiveness, and this video is so self-deflating to the artist's personality, it helps keep the rest of his oeuvre smelling fresher.

The amateurish quality becomes more troubling in Wegman's paintings. "The Tilted Chair," a huge oil work on wood panels, with postcards, is so garish in its colors that it assaults the eye.

Its great pools of ocean blue, patches of spring green, swirls of rust and dirt colors intermixed, all against a white background, make it look a bit like a giant butterfly pattern or colored Rorschach blot.

It is one of Wegman's imaginary landscapes, inspired by pasting down postcards then connecting them with inventive, impossible geographies. Think M.C. Escher, but not nearly so plotted, or geometrically sophisticated; these are organic sprawls.

The preternaturally blue skies and green grasses of the vintage postcards, of course, dictate the color scheme, and Wegman does nothing to tone them down or integrate them visually. His painted additions, however, are often clumsy. One critic has admiringly referred to Wegman's "deliberate refusal of mastery."

Sometimes that lack of mastery does indeed feel deliberate, as in the marvelously structured but childishly rendered "Cat on a Rock," which could pass muster as authentically cracked "outsider" art; other times, especially in the paintings of the 1980s (when he returned to the form after a long absence), it just feels like incompetence.

The one place where the tension between play and the "refusal of mastery" isn't in evidence is the dog work.

In his large Polaroids of the Weimaraners, with their sometimes arch, sometimes coy, sometimes glib visual jokes, every detail is carefully tended to. Surface sheen, lighting, balance -- everything is in order. Love them or hate them, Wegman's dog photographs are the one place where the jokey, droll, slacker-guy artist sublimates humor into polished work.

The dog photographs, with their photographic virtuosity, keep the public happy; the conceptual work, with all its rough edges, seems designed to keep the critics happy. There's no doubt that Wegman is aware of, even bemused by, the strange balance of his career.

In one painting, more clever and more clumsy than most, he has rendered a cartoonlike version of Da Vinci's "Last Supper" on the wall of a room; next to it is a postcard of classic kitsch -- dogs playing poker -- pasted beneath a large, crudely painted cross. A grandfather clock (time) flows into the cross; a light (illumination) hangs from one of its arms. The cross itself is off-center, suggesting that anyone gathered to pray before it would be praying to the dogs -- who are paying no attention to the great master religious work on the wall behind them.

Curiously, the one meaning one might expect to find -- sacrifice, as suggested by the Christian symbols -- is utterly absent. It's almost sacrilegious, but playfulness redeems it. And it seems to be a sign from the artist that he will either sacrifice at both altars -- kitsch and greatness -- equally, or at neither. He refuses to decide between the two.

William Wegman: Funney/Strange, at the American Art Museum, runs through Sept. 24.

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