By Kathleen Vanesian
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William Wegman is wearing the standard uniform for a male artist of the Sixties generation--jeans, tee shirt and tennis shoes--and by his side is the standard accessory for the successful artist from that time--a pretty young brunette. At 46, Wegman has a mop of curly brown hair and a charming public manner. He is talking to a roomful of rich art collectors, members of the Contemporary Art Forum of the Phoenix Art Museum. They are hanging on his every word, and he has them in hysterics with his dog stories.
"All dogs are Roman Catholic, they have a strong sense of guilt," he is telling them, as he flashes a slide of a dog on the screen. The picture shows Wegman standing next to a canine and pointing accusingly at a crack in the floor. "Ray's saying, `I probably did it. I can't remember, but I probably did it,'" Wegman tells his audience.
This is no ordinary dog photograph. It is a work of art called "He Blamed the Crack on the Dog," an early black-and-white photograph featuring the world's most famous dog model, and William Wegman's pet, the Weimaraner Man Ray. Ray made Wegman's reputation, fortune and this night possible. Wegman's dog photographs are the subject of an exhibition at the Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, where the reception for and slide show by the artist took place earlier this month. The sixteen unique large-format Polaroid images concentrate primarily on Man Ray's successor, Fay Ray, with a few dog friends thrown in here and there.
In forming the portraits of the two dogs is a sense of humor more absurd than Monty Python's. For eleven years, Wegman has photographed his Weimaraners in carefully staged tableaux, draping them in vaudevillian costumes or arranging them in visual gags.
Unlike the snapshots ordinary people take of their dogs playing in the park or destroying the living room, Wegman's one-liner photographs of his dogs have brought him fame and fortune. Wegman laughingly told the crowd how Ray, nicknamed Money, paid for two of his summer homes. "Roman Dog" pays a tribute to this ability; it features a regal silhouette of Ray's head as if on a Roman coin. A triptych of Fay at the Sette Gallery is going for $20,000. And Wegman is currently the subject of a major international museum retrospective. Organized by the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland, it will travel to the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.
Yet Wegman's work is more than an expensive joke, and Fay is more than Gracie Allen to his George Burns. Dogs and babies have long been a taboo subject for serious art, but with his absurd images of dogs Wegman attacks head-on not only this taboo but by extension the whole of modern art and life. By presenting amateurish photographs of the family pet as "art," Wegman mocks the pretensions and delusions of contemporary society. His farces reflect upon everything from Playboy magazine and soft-porn jeans advertising to hallowed figures in art history. ("Theo Van" at the Sette Gallery, for instance, refers not only to Van Heusen shirts but to Theo van Doesburg, one of the founders of De Stijl.)
While he has won dog lovers' hearts with his wonderful stories of the personality differences between his two dogs, the different ways Wegman treats the male Ray and the female Fay--especially the more passive way she responds to the camera--have disturbing implications. Fay and Ray are proxies for human experience, wearing our clothes and starring in our roles, and the things they tell us about our society are not always humorous.
A native of Holyoke, Massachusetts, Wegman was born into a working-class family. His father worked at the same athlete's foot powder factory his entire life and Wegman joined him there during the summers. Deciding against a career as a hockey player, Wegman entered art school intent on becoming a painter. In graduate school, however, he abandoned painting because it signified "elitist culture and everything the Sixties were against." Painting was dead, postmodern theory said, so Wegman turned to the ever-popular conceptual format--photographs and drawings of ironic word-image combinations and visual puns.
The meeting of the dog and the camera happened by chance. Man Ray, adopted by Wegman in 1970 and named after the famous surrealist artist, got in the way of a set and turned out to be a consummate ham. Soon Ray found himself sitting at the office in a sombrero, paws hard at work on the typewriter or starring in hilarious videos where his master tries to teach him to smoke: "Don't just puff--inhale. C'mon, you promised. How do you know you don't like it if you don't try it?
" In 1978 Polaroid invited Wegman to make use of its large-format camera in Cambridge, with its greater possibilities of size and color. More than ever, Ray became a central component of Wegman's art, modeling a pair of jeans a la Brooke Shields or sitting next to a guitar as part of a still life after Picasso's blue period. The success of these photographs was phenomenal, gaining man and dog their greatest following. When Ray died of cancer in 1982, the Village Voice honored him as "Man of the Year" with a full-page color photograph.