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Puppy Love

It’s easy to dismiss William Wegman as “oh, that dog guy.” So why do we keep looking?

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William Wegman's Connector (1994), at the Brooklyn Museum.  

On weekends, William Wegman’s “Funney/Strange” at the Brooklyn Museum becomes a playground for parents and children, most of whom have a grand time laughing at the posed pooches. No other artist today can pull that kind of crowd. (Calder came close, but usually just for his child-friendly “Calder’s Circus.”) As the art world knows, Wegman has created a significant body of work apart from his portraits of Weimaraners, notably paintings and human-only videos. But his dogs inevitably steal the show. The question that beguiles me is why they engender more than a passing smile. What makes them more than doggy kitsch? Something more than a jokey greeting card?

Of course, Wegman artfully composes his photographs, and his big Polaroids have a lushly formal look. And he has many connections to the conceptual art of the seventies. But Wegman holds our attention for reasons that go well beyond the arty signals. Wegman is a droll absurdist, and his pictures work on different comic levels. At their simplest, they’re buffoonish: Ha ha! Look at the dressed-up dog. How ridiculous he looks! At a deeper level, the animals serve as human stand-ins, offering up a satirical lampooning of human pretension. The deadpan deflation of pomposity has always been Wegman’s characteristic note, and his dogs make the desire to pose or dress up appear preposterous. But there’s more. Wegman’s choice of breed is brilliant. A Weimaraner is dignified, with an aristocratic bearing. Making these marvelous creatures appear foolish edges Wegman’s comedy into more than simple satire. The pictures are silly-funny, to be sure, but also poignant: A noble nature is diminished by platitude, a dignified mien degraded by unworthy aspiration. The subject becomes folly.

And those luminous eyes. A Weimaraner’s eyes are a disturbing, otherworldly amber: They appear transparent, but cannot be interpreted. They have a way of reflecting our gaze, turning us back upon ourselves until we become the subject. The dog is the viewer; we’re the show. That reversal in perspective is the most unusual aspect of Wegman’s comedy. In one laugh-out-loud video called Ball and Can, for example, he sets up a simple game. He tosses a Ping-Pong ball at Man Ray (the name of his best-known Weimaraner), who repeatedly catches it, chews it, and spits it out—usually somewhere near an open can. The dog relishes the game, snapping up the ball and giving it a cracking good chew. But over time he begins to tire. His earnest master has a goal: He wants the dog to drop the ball into the can. The dog doesn’t understand this absurd desire, and the game becomes less fun. He stops chewing, develops a doubtful look, and begins to spit out the ball tentatively. He wants to be helpful. If his master insists, he’ll still play catch. But really, this goal-driven human doesn’t understand play for play’s sake. Drop the ball in a hole? Why? I wonder what Man Ray would have thought of golf.

“Funney/Strange,” organized by Trevor Fairbrother for the Addison Gallery of American Art, has a large selection of paintings (which contain few if any dogs) along with the photographs. The paintings may lack the star power brought by Man Ray, but they are no less characteristic of Wegman. As usual, he likes to begin with a cliché—such as a scenic postcard—and then playfully open out and disrupt its form and content. Often, he affixes many postcards to the surface. The postcards become points of eerie intensity, hot little windows, which he draws and paints upon and around. Each subversion of a cliché becomes a cheerful prison break. Many of Wegman’s contemporaries also work with clichés, of course, but never with such wry sweetness. That deserves emphasis. Wegman doesn’t have the punishing eye of the true satirist. Nor does he have a drily academic air. Wegman may please the crowd, but, in his way, he’s a rare radical.

William Wegman: Funney/Strange
Brooklyn Museum. Through May 28.


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