Branding the art of William Wegman
Before your share on Fire Island begins, grab some friends and head to Brooklyn. Make a day of it—step into the Botanical Gardens and take your love for a walk under the flowering cherry trees. Then by all means go see the William Wegman retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. This long time Chelsea resident makes artwork with an economy of means and a sure hand that is guaranteed to shake up your expectations.
Many of his early cartoon drawings, photographs, and videos travel precariously close to the edge of dumb; his work with video is similarly problematic. On one hand they are smart, highly entertaining, and blessedly short. Their success especially on Saturday Night Live telecasts in the late 1970’s brought Wegman—and video as an art medium—a lot of well deserved attention. On the other hand, that focus helped spawn the current crop of video artists that now burdens Chelsea art galleries with drawn out, over-produced, and desperately self-impressed fare.
The deservedly well-known, large format Polaroid photographs of Wegman’s Wiemaraner dogs come in three distinct flavors. When the dogs are used as props, as in “Room,” they act as signature elements in Wegman’s assault on art world heavy weights. I personally don’t know if I will ever be able to look at another Donald Judd minimalist box without imaging a goggle-eyed dog trapped inside of it. When Wegman allows the dogs to reveal distinct personality traits as in the canine cheesecake of “Lolita,” or the endless patience expressed in “Dusted,” he is able to make real magic with luminescent color and otherworldly light. In the less successful narrative scenarios like “Evil Stepmother” the dogs get consumed by their costuming. They stop functioning as independent players and Wegman tilts into pandering to the tastes of children and the slippery slope of cuteness.
In his current work, the postcard paintings, Wegman takes found postcards, collages them, and builds a painting around them by interconnecting the images. The seemingly random images—flamingoes, Romanesque churches, cotton fields, walking stones, the architectural horrors of Lincoln Center—most often end up in endlessly repeating, overlapping landscapes sandwiched on top of each other. These clotted, visually thin works are very of the moment, so don’t be surprised if you hear Wegman spoken of as a precedent setter—along with Martin Mull—for those of limited artistic sensibility, a sophomore year in art school, and a solo show in Chelsea. I just kept wishing that he would give up on painting and turn to Photoshop like everybody else.
My major kvetch with this retrospective is that I can’t tell if Trevor Fairbrother and Marilyn Kushner are curators, art registrars—the people who unpack the shipping crates in art museums—or store clerks. There isn’t a specific focus on chronologic, thematic, or stylistic progression, media, or even on a narrative in the two large and two smaller galleries that make up this exhibition. The Wiemaraner photographs play the role of best sellers peppered among the lesser lights, which makes it seem like Fairbrother and Kushner are trying to make a case for Wegman as a brand instead of an artist.
Happily, Wegman himself is in the rather rarified position of not having to give a dog dropping what the art world thinks. The dog images have highly profitable stock in the cultural economy, including Nokia iPod minimovies, coffee table and children’s books, tee shirts, dog proof furniture fabric, posters, note cards, and postcards. Good for him. Good for us is that most of Wegman’s work holds true to the conceptualist desire to pull the rug out from our visual expectations—often by means of breathtakingly beautiful images.