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William Wegman, 'Midsummer Night's Dream'
"Midsummer Night's Dream" (1999)
ART REVIEW

A dogged imagination

Photographer William Wegman's dogged imagination on view at Addison Gallery of American Art

ANDOVER -- In William Wegman's photograph "Reading Two Books" (1971), the shaggy-haired young artist holds up an open book in each hand, and the pupils of his eyes point left and right as if he were indeed reading both books at once.

Part of what makes this a funny image is that it's a photograph, a kind of picture that we are accustomed to reading as factual. For an instant, at least, we take this improbable, wall-eyed, two-fisted reader for real; and then we realize that it is actually a doctored image. It's a dumb sight gag, like something Steve Martin would do, and it's all the funnier for being so obviously dumb. Yet at the same time it raises some intriguing philosophical questions, such as: How do we ordinarily represent the real world to ourselves, and how truthful are our representations?

Such questions are prompted repeatedly in a marvelous 40-year retrospective exhibition of Wegman's extraordinarily inventive art on view at the Addison Gallery of American Art. Organized by Trevor Fairbrother , a former curator at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and now an independent scholar, "William Wegman: Funney /Strange" presents more than 200 works in video, film, drawing, painting, and photography in which fact and fiction and the real and the illusory are mixed up in unpredictably sly and wacky ways.

Wegman is best known for his comical photographs of his beloved Weimaraners Man Ray and Fay Ray, which have made him one of America's most popular artists. He and his dogs have been guests on the "Late Show with David Letterman," and he has created short films for "Sesame Street" and "Saturday Night Live." He has produced calendars, children's books, and Christmas books featuring his dogs, all of which are available on Amazon.com.

Wegman's dog pictures are the heart and soul of "Funney/Strange." It is wonderful to see just how many different approaches there are. Some hark back to the formalism of Edward Weston , as in "Washed Up" (2002), in which the bodies of two dogs lying on a beach reflect the contours of rocks in the background. Many involve fanciful costumes, as in "Midsummer Night's Dream" (1999) , which transforms a dog into a hovering, sumptuously winged fairy. Sequences of shots of dogs' legs pay homage to the stop-action photography of Eadweard Muybridge .

A few of the dog pictures have a powerful emotional resonance. In "Dusted" (1982), a glossy, 20-by -24-inch Polaroid, Man Ray sits motionless under a shower of snowy flour against a background of inky darkness. In his unflappable endurance of this absurd event, the dog exhibits a deadpan, Buster Keatonish patience. It's like a Stupid Pet Trick on "Letterman."

At the same time, the picture exudes a mysteriously touching poetry. The falling white stuff coats Man Ray and creates a haze around him like some magic dust. It is somehow hauntingly sad; the stillness of the dog and the nocturnal surroundings evoke thoughts of death. In fact, Man Ray was dying of cancer in the year the picture was taken.

The dog pictures are as much about photography as they are about dogs. Like Cindy Sherman 's self-portraits of the early '80s in which she costumed and posed herself to resemble characters in Hollywood melodramas, Wegman's photographs of his dogs in funny costumes and situations upended the traditional values of fine-art photography.

This was a time when the putative "truth" of photography -- its indisputably authentic, one-to-one relationship to reality -- was increasingly coming into question. (See Susan Sontag's "On Photography.") The dog pictures prove that truth in photography is complicated. Even the most zany artifice can exert its own emotional truth.

Some of Wegman's most imaginative work has been in video, which he began using in the early '70s. Dozens of short videos are presented on three screens in the exhibition. They include monologues, fake television commercials, short plays, and eccentric activities, as when Wegman dribbles a line of milk from his mouth and Man Ray laps it up.

The main attraction in the videos is Wegman himself, a brilliant comic performer with his own deadpan, Buster Keatonish persona. In one early video, he solemnly demonstrates his new vibrating massage chair -- an ordinary chair that the user operates by banging its metal leg with a stick.

One of the most sweetly poignant videos is "Spelling Lesson" (1972-73), in which the artist goes over the results of a spelling test with his "student" Man Ray. As the dog listens with an uncannily attentive expression, Wegman tells him, "P-A-R-K was spelled correctly, and that was good. Wait! And you spelled O-U-T right. But when it came to 'beach' you spelled it B-E-E-C-H , which is like the, uh, well, there's a gum called Beech-Nut gum, but the correct spelling is -- we meant 'beach' like the sand, so it should have been like the ocean, B-E-A-C-H." Here Man Ray whines apologetically, and Wegman says, "Well, OK, I forgive you, but remember it next time."

Wegman began painting in 1985 for the first time since his student years (he graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1965). It's not the most captivating dimension of his enterprise, but like his work in drawing and photography, it is engaging for its restlessly exploratory play with process, image-making, abstraction, and illusion.

Many of the paintings look like the works of a hobbyist who learned to paint by copying kitschy, old-fashioned illustrations. In the most compelling ones, Wegman glued picture postcards to panels and painted nearly seamless extensions of the pictures. In "Ozzie and Harriet," he extended a postcard photograph of the famous television family into a big empty room with a postcard of a formal garden for a picture window and a Magritte-like giant cigarette painted on the floor in the foreground -- a sign of the toxic good life of the '50s.

In bigger, more complex paintings, Wegman painted in the spaces between dozens of landscape postcards, extending and merging the topographies and skies of the different cards into dizzying, labyrinthian visions of continuous yet contradictory spaces. Like many of Wegman's other works, it seems gimmicky, but the more you look, the more fascinating becomes the tension between the real and the illusory.

About the title of the show: As art historian Joan Simon explains in her excellent, highly informative catalog essay, it comes from a drawing that Wegman made in 1982 -- one of his many delightfully wry, simple, yet conceptually loaded cartoons. It shows two similar ovals with a ladder emerging from one and a drinking straw from the other. One oval reads as a hole in the ground, the other as the rim of a drinking cup. Above the two images appears the word "Funney" [sic] and below, the word "Strange" with a little bar added to the T so it looks like a cross between an F and a T. Together the two words go to the essence of Wegman's art: Look once and it's funny; look again and it's evocatively odd.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

'Related'

"William Wegman: Funney/Strange"

At: Addison Gallery of American Art through July 31. 978-749-4015 , addisongallery.org

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