Funny/Strange: William Wegman

I’m back, for good this time, I promise. So anyway, yesterday evening I was fortunate enough to attend a wonderfully engaging lecture by artist William Wegman at Maine College of Art, now my alma mater. Though I had planned to reflect upon and recount his lecture since I first saw it on the summer MFA visiting artist lecture schedule, I couldn’t have planned how well his artwork corresponds with the season. I can’t think of many other artists who exude the nostalgia of summertime, the simplicity of childhood, and affection for nature as does William Wegman. In her introduction, MECA painting professor, Gail Spaien described Wegman’s life as a  “life devoted to imagination.” Imagination, something that many of us lose as we grow old, but which continues to be the driving force behind Wegman’s work. Work which manifests itself in different ways sometimes whimsical, at other times humorous,  or clever, and almost always as beautiful. Let’s celebrate the official start of summer with a little bit of William Wegman, from nature themed works that appeared in last year’s exhibition Hello Nature at Bowdoin College to minimal Modernist-esque photographs, enigmatic paintings, and inquisitive early works Wegman is no doubt a prolific and diverse artist.

Osher lecture hall was packed to the brim, not only because this was the first of eight lectures or that William Wegman is a critically acclaimed artist, but because of his genial personality. Wegman emanates sincerity, humbleness, a down-to-earth quality that would attract quite a crowd and maintain a loyal following (and not to mention the additional appeal of his deadpan sense of humor). That evening the audience was enchanted. In the silent darkness, between spurts of laughter,  you could sense the toothy grins, the sentimental expressions, and inquisitive heads tilting as people looked on with a childlike sense of wonder.

Receiving his M.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana in 1967, Wegman emerged from the tumultuous and experimental 1960’s. The art world was at a crossroads, abstract expressionism, minimalism, and pop art were coming to their ends and who knew what would happen next. It seems though, this uncertainty allowed him to be fearless. Fearless indeed, as I know many artists, even today might feel hesitant using their beloved pets as a serious subject matter.

His dogs, an unexpected and unconventional muse for a conceptual artist often undergo harsh criticism, but I doubt Wegman cares. He loves his dogs and that love becomes the perfect fuel for interesting art making. As Wegman’s career progressed his work continued to change and fluctuated between the mediums of photography, painting, and drawing. The dogs went through metamorphoses as well appearing in multitudes of ways: as minimalist works of art, dressed up as characters, or posed amongst nature. Wegman stated that his art and process was like putting, “art history in a blender,” and then maybe drinking the concoction and forgetting about it. Though art historical references can be spotted within Wegman’s work, they feel original and uninhibited by the heavy burden of art history. He described his first dog photograph, that shows his Weimaraner Man Ray standing on white cubes as the “bridge between minimalism, Man Ray invading Sol Lewitt.”

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His thought process is humorous and at no time does he take himself or his work too seriously. During the lecture a slide appeared of a painting of tents, Wegman stated that for this painting he first thought about painting and then the next thing that came to mind was Cezanne, then he thought of canvas and said, “oh tents!” and decided to make a painting of tents. You can’t help but giggle at this logic, but what makes this idea so great is that it is logical and obvious. Wegman’s work is a dynamic duo, on one hand it’s quick with a deadpan sense of humor that makes you chuckle, but on the other hand it visually complex keeping you engaged and mesmerized.

Tents, 1996, Oil and acrylic on canvas
Tents, 1996, Oil and acrylic on canvas

As a child my first exposure to William Wegman (before I even knew who he was) was on Sesame Street. I remember being entertained, but at the same time slightly creeped out by dogs with human arms and hands (Wegman stated in his lecture he finds creepy to be more valid than cute, so I guess he succeeded!), but either way it made a lasting impression. Though I am admittedly a dog lover, maybe another reason why Wegman’s work appeals to me is because it conjures up memories of childhood, igniting a sense of nostalgia. All I have to say is that I am a fan of William Wegman, and always will be dogs and all, and if you ever get a chance to listen to him speak take full advantage, he’s amazing and he even signed my Hello Nature catalogue with a funny little doodle!

Here’s a small sampling of artwork throughout the prolific artist’s career, enjoy!

Early Work

The First Dogs

Paintings and Drawings

Minimalism

Life Untlited_11

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Maine

large_Hello-Nature-th1

Anthropomorphism

WilliamWegman

“I was separate from everything, but got along with everyone.”

                                             -William Wegman

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