If you loathe the pretentiousness of most video and conceptual art, you'll probably love the photographic art of William Wegman, which went on view last night at the Corcoran.
Especially the video.
In what must be the most painless 20 minutes in video-art history, the show opens with Wegman's best short tapes from the '70s, starring the artist and his famous dog, Man Ray, a canine stand-up comedian named after the late Dada artist. In one typical skit, Ray stares hopelessly at the camera as he gets a spelling lesson from his boss. In another, titled "Stomach Song," Wegman convincingly transforms his own hairy belly into a singing face.
You have to be there. But this show is worth it--if you like humor that's sometimes silly, sometimes witty, often tender and occasionally gut-busting hilarious.
"Wegman's World" includes all of the above, most of it delivered in the form of 125 photographs and drawings from the past 10 years. During that time, Wegman became widely known both for his tapes and his 20-by-24-inch color Polaroids featuring Ray as chief subject. The dog was often transformed by way of costume into a dinosaur, or a fancy lady in high heels, or a sculptural Airedale--the last achieved by being wrapped entirely in gold Christmas-tree tinsel.
Ray, meanwhile, became even more of a media celebrity than Wegman after appearing live and on tape on "Saturday Night Live" and David Letterman's "Late Night" show.
Last year at age 12, Ray became ill, and Wegman began a series of portraits "to show how he looked physically, rather than use him as a sculpture foil, or disguised dog, or whatever else I've done with him."
Only one of the last black-and-white photographs was actually used in the "Man Ray" portfolio recently published as a homage by the artist, and it is included here with other black-and-white portraits. It is a timeless study of the noble dog in all his grandeur, seated on a cement circle.
But there are several other photographs that clearly presage his death, including "Off the Lake," in which Ray sits silhouetted against a background of shimmering water. These are collectively the most poignant and beautiful images in the show.
"This is a mid-career survey for me, but a retrospective for Man Ray," says the 39-year-old New York artist. And as such, it reveals that there's more to Wegman than Man Ray.
There are early conceptual photo-pieces that toy with our perceptions--a stuffed parrot whose shadow is inexplicably in the shape of a crow, for example. There are altered photographs, in which an ordinary picture of a house is transformed into the "Home of Betty Grable" by the addition of a painted woman's leg in the window.
There are also intriguing manipulated photos such as "Family Combinations," in which Wegman first presents images of his mother, his father and himself, and then superimposes the negatives in various ways, totally confusing the issue of who is who.
Most surprising are several drawings, many of them not seen since the artist's first museum show 10 years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum, organized--it turns out--by Jane Livingston, now the Corcoran's associate director.
Most are distilled ideas rendered in a cartoony, childlike manner with words attached. But there is nothing childish in the jarring thoughts proposed in drawings like "Toddler Holds Couple Hostage" or "Family Travel: We never go anywhere because of me."
Wegman makes fun of some of his own procedures in a pair of drawings, one showing two trees next to each other, and the other showing them superimposed. "Trade," a watercolor of two men making a deal, is simple but touching and evocative. All serve to help flesh out the quirky and unique sensibility that has created "Wegman's World."
The labeling and catalogue for this show are first-rate and, like Wegman himself, uncluttered with wordy pomposities.
Wegman revealed yesterday that he acquired a new dog two weeks ago, "a silver Weimaraner instead of a blue one like Ray was," he says. "But I didn't get him to work with. I really missed having this extension of myself, this other person to look out for when I crossed the street. I have mixed feelings about this dog--part ghost and part new boy.
So far, the dog has no name--"Unless you think George Stubbs an 18th-century English painter of horses is suitable," says Wegman.
"Why don't you announce a contest to name my dog?"
Wegman says people with suggestions can send them to the Corcoran.
Supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibition was organized last winter by Lisa Lyons for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It will travel to Newport Beach, Calif., after it closes here Aug. 28.