'MAINER' Oil and postcards on wood panel, 42 by 66 inches, by William Wegman, 2006.
Wegman's World has taken over the hallowed halls of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. But this is not a picture show of dogs in outrageously silly costumes and disguises, although there are a few of those photographs. Instead, the exhibition "William Wegman: Hello Nature" affords a more multidimensional view of the artist's creative output and mind.
As far as dates of execution and mediums are concerned, this exhibition is all over the place. It includes more than 100 paintings, photographs, drawings, and videos that are primarily from the artist's own holdings. What ties all this together is the subject matter of nature in general, and Maine in particular. According to the museum, all works were created in or inspired by Maine — where Wegman has spent summers for the past three decades.
Wegman's work is probably familiar enough to most readers that it requires little description. The earliest work in the show is a 1969 photographic diptych, "Untitled (leaves on/leaves off)," which ostensibly shows the same tree once with its leafy canopy and once barren. From this before/after scenario onward, Wegman responds in all mediums not so much to nature itself as to somebody else's construction of it. He ingeniously integrates vintage postcards into paintings of fantastic scenes that are conventionally not considered worthy our attention. The artist found inspiration for his collages, drawings, photographs, and writings in the 1950s outdoor recreation guides he grew up with, as well as in the grave exaltations of the spiritual and bodily benefits of nature to be found in transcendentalist literature. Wegman's versions narrate what might be happening beyond a photo's edge, beyond declamatory statements, in real, bug-infested nature.
Wegman's Weimaraner photographs embody this approach by using the dogs as sculptural forms, color, and texture, onto which he transposes his aesthetic sensibility. The large Polaroids thus have the beauty and seriousness of historical portrait paintings while encompassing his trademark witticisms. Wegman's particular sense of humor, however, is often so deadpan to the point of dryness that it occasionally becomes overbearingly seriously funny.
Then again, Wegman actually doesn't respond to the mediated form of nature in his source materials, but to their banality and artifice by taking them at face value and expanding on their propositions to their logical conclusions. In that sense he is harking back to the propositional character of the early conceptual and performance art he practiced in the 1960s. Before the dogs, Wegman used himself as the ground to experiment on. Since, his strategies of appropriation, parody, and alienation have included metamorphoses, camouflage and mimicking, deception and redundancy — all in support of literalism as his overall conceptual stratagem.
Expressively, the work is imbued with nostalgia for an innocence before life became complicated by sex, money, and adult responsibilities and, along the way, everything that has happened in painting within the last few decades. This is not to say that the work is sentimental; rather the opposite. The artist's bemused but critical eye always implicates himself too, and Wegman retains his affection for everyday banalities, never making anybody feel embarrassed for having succumbed to them. His modestly scaled work doesn't make grand statements but insidiously needling ones that cause very personal responses — chuckles, gasps, or recollections.