Since William Wegman began using Weimaraners as props for his intelligent, beautiful and subtly humorous photographs, his career has become so tied to the sleek breed that it sometimes seems like the dogs are the stars and their master is just along for the ride.
But Wegman isn't just a dog trainer who happened to be good with a camera. He was an artist, a self-described 1960s vintage minimal/conceptualist, before he took a picture of his first Weimaraner.
That was in 1970, right after Wegman and his wife had moved to California. He'd promised to get her a dog. She wanted a shorthaired male with spots. They couldn't find one. Wegman had never heard of Weimaraners, but someone told him they were good dogs. The couple saw some pups advertised in the newspaper and they bought one for $35. They named him after Man Ray, the famous surrealist.
A few months later, Wegman noticed the dog was very interested in his studio work and he began experimenting with taking Man Ray's picture in carefully staged settings. It proved a brilliant idea. Photographing Weimaraners in a variety of poses, scenarios and costumes has brought him considerable fame and fortune and put his works in museums, galleries and bookstores all over the world.
But that mass appeal sometimes obscures the real subject of Wegman's work, which is not dogs, but art. That distinction gets overwhelmed by the powerful emotional bond that exists between humans and canines. But the difference between dog art and art using dogs can be seen quite clearly in the fascinating exhibition of Wegman's new Polaroids and iris prints at David Adamson Gallery.
The dogs are handsome, appealing and appear to actually enjoy complying with what Wegman asks of them. His demands, stripped of the costumes and props, are the basic dog commands: sit, stay, lie down, roll over.
The point here is that Wegman is the creative force, not the dogs. He puts them in scenarios that often evoke and sometimes mock different artistic genres. "Lake Shore," for example, is a new triptych of iris prints in which it is hard to tell at first glance that any dogs are involved. From a distance, the work looks like a Milton Avery landscape, with its flat fields of vibrant color forming the outlines of a lake with a stony shore and a forest and blue sky in the background.
Get closer and the boulders in the foreground turn out to be the heads, backs and haunches of Wegman's Weimaraners, the texture and tawniness of their coats adding a lively new dimension to Avery's color theories.
That idea--using a creature that is beautiful, alive, aware and inextricably linked to man as a way to blur the boundary between abstraction and reality and take the viewer inside the picture--is the essence of Wegman's art. It makes one think about Avery and, by extension, Matisse, whose post-Fauvist style Avery emulated. The picture is also funny in a nice sort of way. One can't help but wonder if Avery and Matisse would laugh at the idea of art going to the dogs.
It has to be dogs, not cats. Dogs evoke a unique emotional response. "Man's best friend," like many cliches, is rooted in truth. Millions of people love dogs. Dogs are friendly, warm, companionable and caring. Cats are aloof, self-absorbed loners. The age-old link between dogs and man makes it almost impossible to look at a Wegman photograph and not feel connected to the animal or animals in the scene. It's reflexive. You look at the dogs--his current models are descended from Fay Ray, who succeeded Man Ray--and you almost have to pin your right hand to your side like Dr. Strangelove to keep from scratching behind their ears.
Once that rote response subsides, you look beyond the pooch and the often comical setting, to the composition, the color combinations, the textures and the way those various elements combine to make a complete, compelling work of art. A German hunting dog named after the city of Weimar lays this sophisticated artistic package at your feet. Only William Wegman, not some dog trainer, could get Fay Ray to deliver his peculiar artistic magic.
Artists' Museum's 'Exit '99'
"Exit '99," a group show currently at Artists' Museum, is a quirky hodgepodge of artistic visions that manages, despite its thematic incoherence, to highlight the depth of painting talent in the Washington area.
The show features paintings by the team of Michael Clark and Felicity Hogan, as well as Gary Goldberg, Craig Kittner, Carrie Mallory, Jeneen Piccuirro, Sarah Pitkin, Karen Seebohm, David Stainback and Keith Thomas.
Highlighting work by artists who are also serving the art community as gallery directors, framers and studio landlords is the stated purpose of the show (Stainback, for example, operates the Artists' Museum). That's a flimsy framework for an exhibition and leads one to suspect that "Exit '99" was thrown together to fill a hole in the gallery's schedule.
While the parts don't add up to any kind of statement, individually they aren't bad. Most of the participants have strong brush skills and good color sense. In general, the paintings, most of which are representational in style, are easy to look at and their content is pleasant, if not particularly challenging.
The provocative recent works of Clark and Hogan are the exception. Working in a pop-art style, the two seem to be having great fun vamping recent and ancient art history by adding compelling, contemporary twists to classic images.
The exhibition contains a mini-retrospective of their work from the past few years. It includes dozens of small paintings of oranges, done in an array of recognizable styles from the past century, as well as Warhol-like portraits of George Washington and John F. Kennedy, and a series of erotic paintings in screaming Day-Glo colors in which the images are appropriated from Italian Renaissance art. The latter works are remarkably sexy, strange, thought-provoking, humorous and not recommended for minors or people with pacemakers.
William Wegman, at David Adamson Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Dec. 3. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. and Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 202-628-0257.
"Exit '99," at Artists' Museum, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Nov. 20. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 202-638-7001.
CAPTION: Art, not dogs, is the real subject of William Wegman's "Double Portrait," one of the new photographs on display through Dec. 3 at David Adamson Gallery.
CAPTION: Photographer William Wegman with one of the man's best friends.