Wagging the Dog

When most people dress up their pets in outrageous outfits and/or put them into unusual situations, then photograph the hapless animals, the result is kitsch, and the people might be considered, oh, kinky. When William Wegman does the same thing with his famous Weimaraners, however, it's considered art, and he confirms his status as an artist.

Why is that?

You may or may not figure it all out at the sprawling career retrospective "William Wegman: Funney/Strange," now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Regardless of whether you do — regardless, for that matter, of whether you like or dislike the exhibition — you will almost certainly find food for thought and stimulating debate.

The dogs in question are the artist's calling cards — they made Wegman rich and famous while becoming famous themselves. He and his hounds forged an unmistakable style in which he, you guessed it, dressed them up in outrageous outfits and/or put them into unusual situations, then photographed them in all their strange glory.

The first and — I'm hesitant to put it this way — most influential of Wegman's Weimaraners was Man Ray, acquired in 1970 at the age of six weeks and a source of inspiration until his death from cancer a dozen years later. There's a substantial body of elaborate lore, including puns and other wordplay, about how Wegman came to name the puppy after the great Dadaist and surrealist artist Man Ray as well as how he hit upon the idea of using the dog as a model. Taking it all in is almost like delving into someone's psychosocial profile. Wegman described the new puppy: "Sitting there in the dining room in a ray of light, he looked like a little old man." A tad tidy, but there you have it.

Man Ray was succeeded by another Weimaraner. Wegman upped the punning-name ante by calling her Fay Ray, alluding to the famous blond damsel-in-distress Fay Wray in the 1933 film King Kong. (And in a prescient inside joke: Wegman photographed Man Ray in 1979 with his toenails painted red and titled it Fey Ray.) The artist acquired Fay Ray in 1985 but didn't start photographing her until two years later, and yet another two years later, he was able to initiate a new generation of canine models when she gave birth to a trio of puppies with less pedigreed names: Battina (also known as Batty), Chundo, and Crooky.

"Funney/Strange" doesn't lack for examples of Wegman's work with his Weimaraners, which turn up in some of the show's many videos as well as in the Polaroid photographs and even the occasional painting. Sometimes he shoots the dogs fairly straightforwardly, letting their posture and the lighting flesh out the images. Other times, he juxtaposes them with human models or even dresses them up to suggest a hybrid of human and animal.

And often, he simply establishes some sort of interaction between dog and furniture. The interaction may be complex, as in the 1988 triptych Table of Contents: Fay Ray has been squeezed into the tight space between the top of a small end table and the shelf below it. In the first shot, she looks surprisingly comfortable; in the second, she peers out forlornly, and in the third, one of her legs is extended alongside one of the table's legs, as if she's trying to escape even as her leg gracefully intersects with that of the table. Or the interaction may be as simple as in 1994's Connector, in which a dog (presumably one of Fay Ray's offspring) sits atop a cube, one hind leg stretched out to rest on a second cube.

As Wegman discovered, the photographic possibilities of his pooches were virtually endless, as was the public's fascination with the results — the photographs have been inventively marketed for many years. Again the question: Why is Wegman's work art and your or my snapshot of Fido or Fluffy all dressed up with nowhere to go merely kitsch? Just speculating here, but I have never seen an example of routine novelty snapshots in which the animal subjected to such treatment retained any shred of dignity. Cats in costume, in particular, seem trapped and utterly humiliated. And while many dogs are game participants in such shenanigans — always so eager to please — they too often seem pathetic.

Wegman's Weimaraners, by contrast, almost never lose their dignity. From time to time, they may look bewildered or resigned but rarely undignified. This may just be anthropomorphic projection, but the dogs seem to be uncannily in on the joke, so that while they may sense that much of what they participate in is foolishness, there's also something noble (and occasionally even tragic) about it.

The final photographs of Man Ray, for instance, are almost unbearably poignant, even if you aren't aware that his death was impending when they were taken: In Dusted, he sits slightly hunched and in profile in a darkened space, with a cascade of white powder pouring onto him from above like snow or stardust. And in the first photo of the diptych Garden, he lies covered in flowers with not much more than his head visible; in the second image, he is invisible, with only the flowers left to suggest the shape of a sleeping dog. (Five years later, Fay Ray appears in Rising, another triptych that's a sort of tribute to her predecessor: In the first shot, she peeks out from a mound of flowers, toys, and playing cards, and in the second, she stands hunkered and hesitant, still partially covered with foliage as she emerges.)

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.

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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Michael Mills