William Wegman Funney/Strange
In Funney/Strange, a drawing from 1982, William Wegman plays with the distinction between “funny ha-ha” and “funny peculiar.” In much of his art, he creates situations that are both humorous and out of the ordinary. With his eye for the odd and unsettling, Wegman has the gift to divert objects, people, and places from being their “normal” selves. His work tempts us to see the world from different perspectives: inverted, fractured, and in flux. We feel compassion for his various foils, particularly the faithful, trusting dogs that enact so much human puzzlement and folly in his famous photographs and videos.
Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1943, Wegman entered the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston in 1961, at which time painting was his passion. Six years later, on completing his MFA at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he was championing the unfettered experimentation of the sixties counterculture. While working as an art instructor in Wisconsin and California from 1967 to 1971, he explored video, installation, and the merging of sculpture, happening, and performance. He has lived in New York City since 1972.
Wegman had his creative breakthrough about 1970, when he began to make photographs that share the investigative curiosity of Conceptual Art. Whereas he had previously used the camera to document or portray his ephemeral performances and installations, he now made quizzical pictures of staged scenarios. On first impression these photographs are deadpan, but scrutiny reveals all manner of visual and intellectual playfulness. For example, in the work Cotto, there is a weird overabundance of circles and spots: on the artist’s hand; in the slices of meat; and on the paint-spattered surface beneath the bright white plate.
Wegman subsequently worked in a wide variety of media—including video, drawing, painting, collage, and new photographic technologies—which he continues to explore today. Regardless of the form his art takes, it abounds with ambiguity, surprise, and imagination.
Staged black-and-white photographs were a crucial part of Wegman’s repertoire at the beginning of his career. Whether produced as a single image, a pair, or a series, these pictures assume a sober document-like appearance, which is often underscored by a nondescript setting. The impact lies in a given work’s ability to surprise the viewer with an ambiguous or inexplicable set of information. Thus, the two pictures in Milk/Floor are similar on first glance, but then their compositions become very different: the same dog seems to drink from the same puddle of milk, but the floor boards are running in different directions. Wegman also explored wordplay to great effect. Madam I’m Adam is a diptych that pays homage to the palindrome (a phrase that reads the same both forward and backward). While the photographs are extremely close in appearance, careful comparison reveals that one of them is printed from a flopped negative.
Wegman is best known for his large Polaroids, the 24-by-20-inch color photographs that he has been making since 1979. He was among the first artists invited to use the enormous “room-size” camera that Polaroid built to produce life-size “instant” portrait photographs with an unprecedented degree of clarity and detail. The Polaroids allowed Wegman to push his passion for verbal and visual play to new heights. The scale, sharpness, and strong color of the prints rivaled the allure of glossy advertising and Hollywood movies, and strengthened the drollery of his art. In 1983 the critic Sanford Schwartz wrote of the Polaroids, “Enamel-dense and satiny, Wegman’s generally dark blues, reds, and greens have a once hot, now cooled-off lustrousness; they’re like the colors of cars at night in the tropics.”
Whether shrouded in atmospheric swirls of pigment, or set in a sharp, crisp perspective, the incidents Wegman captures in his paintings trigger the imagination. The artist has observed, “When I was a boy, my room had pirate wallpaper, and the registration of the printing was off, so that the pirate’s face wasn’t in the pirate’s head outline. I can still recall the hours I spent studying the problem of the pirates climbing the sky and not the ladder. My paintings are a lot like that—everything is familiar but not quite in the right place.”
Wegman’s paintings from the 1980s and 1990s have a deliberately light and whimsical touch. Some coax images out of mere drips and stains. Others play grand flourishes of the brush against meticulously detailed vignettes. More recently the artist has applied postcards to the surfaces of his paintings, treating each as a visual “given” that he must assimilate into an impressionistically painted whole. Wegman builds exhilarating counterpoints in his constant shifting between the photomechanical and the hand-painted, and his swooping from postcard subdivision to rhapsodic whole.
Drawings and Altered Photographs
After winning critical acclaim with his black-and-white photographs and short video works, Wegman began to exhibit drawings in the late 1970s. Drawing in pencil or ink offered a break from working with technological equipment, and his technique was seemingly unschooled and dramatically sparse—just one image or idea per page. He wrote, “What a relief . . . to gaze upon a blank sheet of paper and make a few lines with a pencil and not have to worry about lighting or electronic feedback.”
Wegman has long been fond of the illustrations and diagrams in popular encyclopedias, handbooks, and instruction manuals—publications that earnestly distill a complicated entity or action into a few outlines. In context those simple pictures are definitive, and magically effective, but they are too formulaic to be “real.” When Wegman adds a mock-diagrammatic drawing in ink on top of one of his photographs, he makes two worlds collide. The photograph captures one reality, the drawing introduces a second picture, and each poses a challenge to the way we see or read the other.
In the essay “Videotapes: Seven Reels” (1990), Wegman wrote, “Video is exciting because it’s so much like TV. But unlike TV, you have to make it yourself and it can be expensive. . . . The belief that I could reach an audience without being there somehow appealed to me. I was also interested in expanding the range of subject matter in my work; to deal with things that really meant something to me, the kinds of things you tend to catch yourself thinking about whether you’re supposed to or not. . . . All the reels are comprised of brief vignettes involving studio and familiar household props. They are unassuming and straightforward in set and lighting, with clear and definite beginnings, middles, and ends.”
The directness and infectious humor of Wegman’s videos in the 1970s led to commissions from NBC’s Saturday Night Live and memorable contributions to PBS’s Sesame Street. In turn these successes have inspired such popular commercial products as the fifteen-second videos that had their debut on Nokia cell phones in 2004.
In 1972, in a review of the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York City, the performance artist Laurie Anderson praised the videotapes for the novelty of their “studio hijinks”; she dubbed Wegman “a diabolically brilliant one-man situation comic.”