BRUNSWICK, Maine — William Wegman is the guy who dresses up dogs in human clothes, or has them pose in human situations. The dogs are Weimaraners. They have lovely docile expressions and a blank, almost albino look, just on the right side of weird. You’ve seen them on greeting cards, very funny.
WILLIAM WEGMAN: Hello Nature
Of course, there’s pathos in having to start a review of Wegman’s show at Bowdoin College Museum of Art this way. Especially since the show is not really focused on his dog photos (although — don’t be disappointed! — there are dogs in abundance; there’s even an elaborate dog film).
Why not begin by acknowledging that Wegman is one of the world’s most beloved contemporary artists? (How many conceptual artists have appeared on television with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Stephen Colbert?) Or, this is an art review after all, by noting his early struggles as an art student to unite Suprematism with Abstract Expressionism; his attempts to purge “the personal and the sentimental” from his art; his dawning realization that painting didn’t really “belong” to him, that it was probably “dead,” as many at the time (the 1960s and 1970s) insisted; his long engagement with photography; his subsequent, guiltily ironic resumption of painting?
All this would be apt, especially since this is a show heavy in both painting and photography.
But Wegman, I suspect, doesn’t need critics to dwell on his coming-of-age struggles or his avant-garde chops, or even to proclaim his underlying seriousness — which, if it exists, remains mostly imperceptible to me.
Instead, he seems willing — just as we should be willing — to bask in all the ironies attendant upon his peculiar and in many ways enviable position. He is, after all, famous and a conceptualist, which is almost as good as being famous for conceptualism. He’s also funny, and sweetly so.
Wegman doesn’t just invite pathos into his work, he dashes up to it with puppyish delight. Taking up a tradition of studio-born, dress-up portraits that runs from Rembrandt and Velazquez through Corot, Manet, Matisse, Claude Cahun, and Cindy Sherman — a tradition steeped in human pathos — Wegman transposes the tradition to his Weimaraners, with predictable results: doggy humor with diminishing returns.
What, then, is his Bowdoin College show, “Hello Nature,” about?
It’s about Maine, of course, and the great outdoors.
This, let’s face it, is almost as pathetic as making art from dressing up dogs. And Wegman knows it. When he combines the two modes — as in his photos of dogs in camping tents, wearing wigs of seaweed, or posing like female nudes on seaside rocks — you feel a surfeit of pathos. It’s like consuming a cupcake made from more icing than cake. The ironized thing is overwhelmed by its extravagant adornment.
But what is it that Wegman is ironizing? In short, the whole “Maine” thing. “Vacationland,” as the license plates say. Childhood summers. Camping. Hiking. Swimming. Learning to sketch or paint in watercolors.
Wegman, who divides his time between New York and Maine, is described on the catalog’s dust-jacket as “an avid outdoorsman.” I believe it. But he must be the most self-parodying outdoorsman ever to don a hunting cap.
The Bowdoin show is drawn almost entirely from the artist’s own collection, and much of it has the whimsical look of things not really intended for public consumption. There are sketchy drawings and watercolors that play with the graphic language of holiday brochures, how-to manuals, and advertisements. There are photographs that toy with the classifications of natural history, or show Wegman’s dogs doing amusing things in the landscape.
And there is a very droll film that uses the dogs as characters in a story line based on “The Hardy Boys” books.
Most intriguing are the many small paintings that start from a cliched vintage postcard of Maine and incorporate that image into a painting. Sometimes more than one postcard is used. In each case, the tension between postcard cliche and painted cliche induces a double-take.
“Water Damage” (made this year, it’s the most recent work in the show) and “Lake View” are the best of them. In both, the postcards are made to look like large framed paintings on the walls of bare rooms. In “Water Damage,” a door to the outside is open to reveal an extension of the headland depicted in the postcard-painting on the wall.
Wegman seems to relish the Maine outdoors as a worthy aesthetic subject in the same frame of mind with which he once explained his decision to return to painting: “At night, before going to sleep, I would have these visions,” he said in a 1990 interview. “In this dreamy state, the Lord told me to start using my God-given talents. I interpreted this to mean painting.”
In other words, with a good dollop of self-directed sarcasm.
In an era haunted by the emerging reality of what environmentalist Bill McKibben long ago called “The End of Nature,” Wegman’s interest in the ways humans artificially construct “nature” — making it all the more ripe for domestication and domination — is apt.
But the results are all a little fey. The wit, too used to basking in pathos, isn’t sharp enough. And the irony is so pervasive that it fogs things up: You can’t tell the wood from the trees.