Last weekend, an old blue Weimaraner named "Man Ray" moseyed into the McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, checked out the photographs on the wall (all portraits of himself), and curled up under a desk to recuperate from what had obviously been a too-long drive from Manhattan.
"Ray," as he is known to his fans, was in town with his presumed best friend, artist William Wegman, to celebrate the opening of their latest collaboration--a show of large color Polaroid photographs. In them, Ray is variously--and hilariously--posed as the following: "Aunt Margaret," wearing chiffon, high heels and a big hat; "Dino Ray-Back," with blue Styrofoam dinosaur ridges stuck to his fur; and "Fake Frog," complete with swim flippers, bulging ping-pong eyeballs and plastic-bagged paws. Viewers were laughing out loud.
Together, Wegman and Ray have been making people laugh for more than a decade, not only with their photographs, but also in their better-known performances and videotapes, all short, hilariously funny and mercifully lacking in pretentiousness--video's pervasive flaw. Unfortunately, none of Wegman's tapes or drawings is on view at McIntosh/Drysdale, but the show is an hors d'oeuvre to a large helping of Wegman's work due to be shown at the Corcoran next year. Yet the photographs offer the viewer the pleasures of Wegman's performance art plus something extra: a chance to freeze-frame his imagination long enough to see that his achievement goes well beyond thigh-slapping hilarity.
Some images are just plain beautiful, a fact that always comes slowly and as something of a surprise, given the generally outrageous subject matter. "Workman's Comp," for example, consists of nothing more than the dog quietly seated next to a metal tool chest, a feather-pen nearby; yet the moody blue light gives the photograph a classic, timeless quality. Even more astonishing is the transformation achieved in "Dusted"--at first, nothing more than an image of an endlessly patient dog having flour dumped upon him. After a longer look, however, the flour begins to read as a ray of light, and seems to be rising, not falling. The whole scene takes on the aura of a transfiguration, or assumption into a higher state of being.
These 20-x-24-inch Polaroid-Land photographs were made on a special, 200-pound camera at Polaroid's labs in Cambridge, Mass., and are unique images. "The routine is to get into the car, fill it full of props and a few ideas and see what happens," says Wegman of his modus operandi. Viewers can see what happened to Wegman and Ray during their last several trips to Polaroid at the McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, through April 1. Hours are 11 to 5:30, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Coincidentally, experiments with the same camera by a dozen other artists--among them Ansel Adams, Lotte Jacobi, Arnold Newman and Andy Warhol--can be seen at the National Academy of Sciences through April 30.