Walk on the mild side

By GREG COOK  |  April 9, 2007

By 1972, he’d acquired Man Ray and was living in New York. His art remained serious ruminations on perception and semiotics but disguised as kiddie jokes and find-the-hidden-picture games. He photographed twin sisters and circled their identifying facial differences. He doodled pages of V-shaped birds and waves to ask what’s the difference between one mark and the other. He photographed Man Ray on a rocky beach and then carefully painted the pooch out. He photographed a woman seated on an exercise machine and doodled around the handles to make them resemble men’s penises. Tee. Hee.

070413_inside_dogs
UNTITLED (1998): Art folks are embarrassed by Wegman’s dog photos, but art audiences are desperate for a laugh.
Wegman made clunky videos in which he imitated how-to demonstrations and commercials. In one, he sprays deodorant under his arm for the entire minute he testifies to the product’s clutch-moment effectiveness. In Spelling Lesson (1973-’74), Man Ray sits at a table while Wegman explains how he’s done on a spelling quiz. He’s spelled “park” and “out” correctly, but “beach” is wrong, to which the dog, right on cue, sadly whines. It’s this sort stuff that got Wegman gigs making videos for Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street.

The problem is that the jokes mostly aren’t funny — except in the mildest, safest, lamest sit-com way. The reason Wegman passes for “hilarious” (as the textbook historian H.H. Arnason described him) is that art audiences are so desperate for a laugh, they’ve lowered the bar for humor almost to the floor.

The great New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg covered this same semiotics stuff first and did it better and funnier — examining how language and symbols like Santa Claus, Uncle Sam, and the Statue of Liberty function in our politics and economy. Mike Kelley followed Wegman’s slacker jokes into rich, uncomfortable gags about middle-class American culture. But it’s silly to criticize Wegman for not being deep or funny, because his ultimate subject is goofing off, carelessness, offhandedness, half-assedness, failure.

In 1979, he became one of the first artists to use Polaroid’s new 24x20-negative instant camera in Cambridge and New York. The machine introduced lush color to his work (thanks mostly to technically skilled assistants) and inaugurated his signature series of studio-posed portraits of his dogs in goofy costumes.

Art folks are embarrassed by Wegman’s schmaltzy passion for photographing his dogs. And so the Addison show barely touches on how these works led to greeting cards and kids’ books in which dog-headed people act out Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood. To me, this is Wegman at his most Wegmanny, for good and for ill. Here are photos of a dog dressed in devil horns for Bad Dog (1981) or in a leopard-print bikini and blond wig. A dog turns into a pumpkin with the addition of a stem atop its head and an orange background. Wegman subtly arranges curled-up gray dogs to resemble boulders with a blurry watery horizon in the distance. When these photos are not just goofs, they’re often ruminations on mortality (dogs emerging from flowery graves or laid out like the crucified Christ being readied for the tomb), a consequence of befriending critters whose lifetimes are a fraction of our own.

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