william wegman

From: William Wegman, Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan, 1997

William Wegman at the Gates of Eden

I   (The Great Pretender)

There is something exhilarating and something incredibly sad about pretending. It's exhilarating because everything imaginable becomes possible. It's sad because all those exciting, heroic, or honorable possibilities don't really exist. Pretending is a world of desire created out of what we know about the shortcomings of the real world. Eden is just such a place, with the distinction that when we pretend Eden, we pretend it once existed, is now lost, and will someday return. Every so often someone reimagines what this return might be like, makes up a new Eden.

Pretending new ways to create a little bit of heaven right here on earth isn't easy; it demands transforming a private fantasy into something more public, something we can all wish for but know we can never have. William Wegman does a lot of pretending, but more than anything, he does a lot of pretending about Eden. His career reads like an attempt to imagine how the discord we call America can find some kind of fulfillment. Wegman's Edens are never carefree utopias and they're never entirely real—he uses humor and fiction to keep us outside the gates looking in, conscious all the time that we're playing his pretend game. Funny though they are, Wegman's constant reminders that Eden is something outside our grasp, something we've dreamed about before and lost, makes them especially sad at the same time.

Wegman's early conceptual artwork is an example of the process he uses to transform what we know to be true into what we might hope to be true.  At first glance, it shares a number of qualities with much of the art world of its day. Ironic, acerbic, cool, black-and-white fictions, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-deep, and post-caring—the epitome of 70s art intelligentsia. The pretend story of conceptual art was that there was nothing to buy or sell, nothing to remind anyone of what the business of America or the art world really was. It was a little too easy, a little too oblivious, a little too convinced that the rest of America was a lost cause.

William Wegman pretended that America was real and then went about making it real for everyone else. Sure there were the art world in-jokes, perceptual conundrums, and photographic deconstructions, but mixed in there are couches, family members, bowling balls, underwear. Wegman realized his de-materialized fantasies with good old made-in-the-USA stuff, turning the theory of de-consumerized, non-materiality on its head and doing it with what conceptual art distrusted most—small town, middle class, American junk. At the same time, he was giving small town, middle class, American consumers a glimpse into how surrealistic their lives really were. Wegman's weird humor was the fulcrum on which he managed to balance the conceptual art world on the one side with middle class America on the other.

That balancing act is the key to Wegman's first Eden. Like Charles Wilson Peale holding open the curtain to his Cabinet of Curiosities, Wegman was pretending that American intellectual life and American materialism were inextricably joined in important and mysterious ways. By enacting the coexistence of art world and mall world, Wegman was pretending a particular and grand democratic Eden—that the once whole but now rent cloth of American culture could somehow be bound again, that Soho and suburbia could laugh together, that unity was possible in the face of just about every indication that it wasn't. That's something else William Wegman understands about pretending—if you're not going to do it big, there's no use even getting started.

II  (Secret Agent)

A curious thing has been happening to William Wegman's Weimaraners. When Wegman first started to photograph Man Ray everything seemed ordinary enough. Man Ray did what dogs were supposed to do: slurped milk, looked at cats, followed tennis balls, sat on couches. It's true Man Ray had a real photogenic quality, but so do many dogs. Things began to change, though, most dramatically when Wegman started to make Polaroids of his dog. Man Ray began to take on shapes, do art jokes, make visual puns. He even did weird fantasy imitations of other animals (like elephants). It was a singular shift in consciousness. But it was hard to tell whether the agent of Man Ray's evolutionary leap was some predestined biological mishap or whether it was brought about by his ongoing exposure to Polaroid film.

In any case, when Man Ray died and Wegman met a new dog named Fay Ray, it became obvious that the evolutionary profile wasn't limited to one dog. Besides the visual pranks, Fay Ray actually began to impersonate human beings, praying, laying, wearing dresses, and this change continued with new dogs Battina, Crooky, Chundo, and Chip, who took on the personas of historical and fictional characters, such as George Washington and Mephistopheles. Two things were obvious. The first was that Wegman's dogs had now acquired the ability to comprehend the nature of fiction; the second was that the dogs' transformation was neither photo-chemical nor biological (some of the dogs share biological bonds, some do not; some worked in Polaroid only, some in video, too). This left one evolutionary agent that all the dogs had in common. William Wegman himself.

A thorough search of the literature reveals a strange particularity in Wegman’s process. According to a short description of Wegman’s working method published in an obscure art journal, he “collaborates” with his dogs, implying that Wegman considers them equal partners in his creative process and had probably considered them in this way since his early pictures with Man Ray. It sounds like such a small thing in the landscape of evolutionary progress, but the consequences were dramatic. Theorizing his dogs creative equality not only provided for their eventual transformation, it set in motion a new vision of how the creative process worked. To Wegman art was no longer based simply on what he wanted to make or do, the process was open to compromise and discussion. If dogs could collaborate why not anyone or anything else? Advertising directors, his dreams, random phone calls, the whole wide world.

By considering his dogs collaborators and surrendering some amount of control, some amount of himself to the world at large, Wegman began to create more than art. His photographs became the imaginary proof of a theoretical time and place in which man and dog were equal. When Wegman photographs his dogs canoeing across the perfection of a sunset disappearing into the vanishing point, they reinvent the peaceable kingdom, an Eden in which the entirety of the natural world attains harmony through cooperation in the pursuit of beauty. In the end, climate change, breeding, and behavioral modification never made one iota of difference to Wegman and his dogs' new world. Instead, it was a new social relationship, theorized in the face of the human domination of nature and the onset of ecological catastrophe, and acted out in front of a camera. Collaboration was the key to Eden, the evolutionary agent at work on Wegman's Weimaraners, and because collaboration is a social relationship and reciprocal, it was at work on Wegman too.

We can see Wegman's transformation most clearly in a set of photographs made of Fay Ray in 1994 and which appear in the same small journal. There are four different exposures. No costumes; no props. Just Fay Ray in the simplest kind of portraits. What Wegman depicted is Fay Ray in the act of looking—looking at the camera, looking at William Wegman, looking at us. These photographs are not about art or photography or William Wegman or even Fay Ray; these photographs are direct records of a collaborative act. Two beings looking at each other through a camera, utter equals without pretense or purpose other than the shared moment of their equality. Even though it only lasted a few brief seconds, Wegman and Fay Ray managed to reach the peaceable kingdom they had been working toward all those years. What does a photograph of Eden look like? Exactly the way it feels to make. 

III  (Once Upon a Time in Western Massachusetts)

It's hard to imagine what a boyhood in pre-1960s America was like. Watching John Wayne movies, playing tackle football, building plastic models of the latest American warplanes, and playing with electric trains was not only accepted it was fun. The whole world and all of history looked just like everybody's next-door neighbor's back yard and every next-door neighbor's back yard looked just like Eden. No girls allowed and no strings attached. Of course, like every Eden it was make-believe, this time a myth fashioned to help shape the heirs apparent to the American Century. No one could have ever imagined that those carefree American boyhoods would end up in the politics of tear gas and body bags, witnesses to church bombings and date-rapes. Innocence ended so abruptly and so violently for those native sons that not much was left, nothing to learn from, no evidence of what went wrong. Just a lot to forget. The Eden from hell.

William Wegman's paintings range from funny self-portraits to historical panoramas, but many find their subjects in that lost boyhood. It's not so much that these paintings recreate that particular Eden as they are an attempt to recover the painful memories we've refused to accept. Like an amnesiac struggling to put a name and face on what he knows to be true, Wegman paints his figures emerging from a wash of color and paint. The context has been lost but the details remain: the jet planes, the trains, the ancient ruins, the still functioning factories, the maps. Lost in the space of Wegman's canvases, these details swarm and collide, too remote to make sense, too seductive to send away again.

Wegman remembers what is most difficult to acknowledge about the toys and books and dreams of those boyhoods spent in Eden—that they were beautiful, intoxicating representations. The allure of those lost boyhoods wasn't the power, or the killing, or the violence buried inside the myth, it was the simple visceral pleasures, the sleek lines of the toy jets, the color fields of the maps, the perfect curves of the electric trains, the smoothly interlocking rectangles of ancient history and current events. Wegman returns those trains and planes and maps to the land of representation, where boys once pretended an imperium of justice through their exhilarating pleasures and mythologies.  Wegman's trains and planes are mostly sad, a primer of why Eden can never be regained, but why pretending it feels so good. That's the secret of those boyhoods and it's also the secret William Wegman found at the gates of Eden. Trying to forget doesn't help, maybe remembering will.