August 26, 2012

Art Review: See Wegman in all his waggishness

By DANIEL KANY

“Hello Nature” is an elaborate production dedicated to reinventing William Wegman. It is an artistic midlife crisis writ large.

click image to enlarge

“Water Damage,” a collage painting, from William Wegman’s “Hello Nature” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Courtesy of William Wegman Studio and Bowdoin College Museum of Art

click image to enlarge

The large-scale Polaroid “Crossing” from William Wegman’s “Hello Nature” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

ART REVIEW

“WILLIAM WEGMAN:

HELLO NATURE”

WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick

WHEN: Through Oct. 21

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday (until 8:30 p.m. Thursday); noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: Free

INFO: 725-3275; bowdoin.edu/art-museum

First appearing as a 1970s deadpan-punning conceptual artist, Wegman is best known for photographs of Weimaraner dogs.

 “Hello Nature” is an ode to the artist’s connections to Maine through photos, paintings and drawings. It is a joyous monument to camp – both in terms of the lake house and intentional kitsch. The entire exhibition pulses with the naively exuberant energy and aesthetics of a 1950s advertisement for summering in the Rangeley Lakes region. 

Rather than a museum-curated show, “Hello Nature” is absolutely Wegman’s production. This “exhibition” is actually a giant (and phenomenal) work of conceptual art. Wegman wants it to serve as the critical foundation for his artistic legacy.

The exhibition is a jagged pill. If you find Wegman’s doggie photography charming, his ironic and even snide commentary could bother you. Those who look down their noses at Wegman’s popular images might not enjoy finding out that the joke – in the form of considerable intellectual heft – was always on them.

Still, there are plenty of amusing pooch pictures. And Wegman’s hilarious film “The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold,” which features the dogs, runs continually.

The half-hour film echoes Wegman’s earlier conceptual art behind his deadpan narration and the dogs playing Hardy Boys-like characters (they ride on people, so we see their heads on human bodies). “Hardly boys,” deadpans the narrator, “they were girls and dogs.” I couldn’t stop laughing.

Cross-dressing dogs cut to the quick of Wegman’s art: Theatrical concealment, from a dog with her head jutting out of a kitschy moose blanket (“Moose Crossing”) to photos of dogs impressively hidden in plain sight. Wegman is obsessed with telling us that things are not as they appear. Tellingly, the first words he said at the show were “I am not into ‘semenology’ ” – a well-rehearsed dirty joke about the critical theory study of signs/art known as “semiology.”

Having achieved artistic fame and fortune, Wegman is using “Hello Nature” as his first major attempt to curate his historical legacy. It bristles to show off his spiny wit and prolific intellect. His anxiety about changing nestled opinions is the source of this show’s anxious sizzle.

The exhibition’s fundamental thrust is to announce Wegman’s deep engagement with painting – the wellspring of pretty much every 20th-century art movement.

But can Bill paint?

Put it this way: Like most of Wegman’s straightforward paintings, the large canvas “Activities” (1992) has a rather agonizing see-I-CAN-paint feel. And “Tents” (1996) shows a campsite painted with a childlike hand in a postwar cubist style. “Tents” was unstretched and then remounted on a canvas panel so it would look like a museum artifact of an imagined early painting career.

Most of Wegman’s paintings tap into nostalgia via dated Maine postcards. Some are strong. Some feel like student projects, which – ironically – also works.

 Wegman’s “Water damage” (2012) is a brilliant collage painting employing a kitschy log-framed postcard as a camp’s picture window. The open door to its right repeats the image – persuasively painted by Wegman – and spills the lake into the pencil perspective room.

Wegman’s three-panel, giant-scale color Polaroid “Crossing” (1991) is a dazzlingly brilliant artwork about painting. It features a dog-filled boat inside a large room with a panoramic view of the Maine woods that feels like a landscape painting. The high-focus photographs fool us into believing this is a single panorama of 10 or so dogs in a long, elegant boat. But closer inspection reveals repetitions in the landscape above and disjunctions in the prints below.

It then becomes apparent the prints are performing a deceptive drama. There are only four dogs, and the boat isn’t so long. It’s a masterful play on painting.

The most revealing work is the 2010 oil and postcard “Room with a view.” It directly engages Richard Hamilton’s English Pop Art icon, “Just what it is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” Wegman’s response shows a Puritan New England interior and a boyishly pretty, plaid-clad 1950s girl posing on a log cabin.

“Room with a view” is Pop Art as cultural decoder, and Wegman is flummoxed by the conscious local adoption of the rustic style. Were those postcards faux retro when they were originally designed? If so, are our rustic childhood memories real or the products of theater? Such questions are why Wegman exhumes the styles of 1960s encyclopedias such as “Childcraft.”

 “Hello Nature” might be thicker than blackflies in June with ideas about the production, consumption and distribution of the cultural codes of art, rusticity, nostalgia, outdoorsmanship, naturalism and the Maine landscape – but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

The show is conflicted, but it’s great fun and great art. It is Wegman’s vessel for trying to reinvent his entire career retroactively. Only time will tell, but I bet he succeeds.


Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

dankany@gmail.com

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