Wagging the Dog

William Wegman takes a stab at being more than just the guy with the Weimaraners

I should emphasize that "Funney/ Strange" includes a lot more than just Wegman's dog photos (more than 200 works total), although they're by far the most famous portion of his output. The exhibition also features videos, short films, paintings, drawings, collages, and artist books as well as the altered black-and-white photographs from his early career. Through it all runs a thread of conceptualism, a sort of hyper-self-consciousness about what he's doing.

That conceptualism is manifested in different ways and with differing degrees of success: the very dry wit of Wegman's disarmingly simple drawings (some of which remind me of Yoko Ono's 1960s work); in the clever, sometimes too clever, gimmickry of those altered photos, many staged to include the artist himself; and in the failed faux naiveté of the '80s paintings.

And in many works, some executed on an imposing scale, the manifestation is flat-out ingenious. In the past decade or so, Wegman has taken to creating mixed-media paintings that use existing post cards as their starting point, then expand the given image into a much larger one. For 1997's Flight Confirmation, for example, the artist took a greeting card in celebration of a young girl's religious confirmation and painted beyond the card's edges to suggest that the ceremony is taking place on the steps leading up to an airplane.

Ozzie and Harriet, one of Wegman's "found post card" paintings.
Ozzie and Harriet, one of Wegman's "found post card" paintings.
Reading Two Books. There's a thread of hyper-self-consciousness.
Reading Two Books. There's a thread of hyper-self-consciousness.

Some of the most recent "post card paintings" use multiple post cards on huge wood panels to create images of amazing complexity. Last year's Museum uses dozens of card-sized reproductions of works of art — some famous, some not — to fill a vast museum. Others rely on jarring juxtapositions to great surrealistic effect.

These paintings alone might have made a fully satisfying exhibition. As it is, "Funney/Strange" feels overstuffed, a premature career retrospective for an artist who, at 63, hasn't earned it just yet. (In the otherwise beautiful catalog, the images of the actual work are suffocated with reverent overanalysis.) Wegman seems to have reached the point of wanting to be thought of not just as the guy with the Weimaraners but as someone with a much more varied oeuvre. He has a point, of course, although by including so many of the dog-based works along with so much else, this exhibition ends up being not only exhaustive but exhausting.

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