Doggie style

Don't be afraid to get behind William Wegman's "serious" art

He calls them "the dogs," like other people say "the kids." He'll say he was somewhere with "the dogs," or he was bike-riding with "the dogs," or he couldn't take "the dogs" on the book-signing tour. He talks about his first one, Man Ray, as if it were a human companion. He remembers a weekend retreat to a lake cabin enjoyed only by the two of them--one man and his dog. He recites their ages, their birth and death dates, their mothers, siblings, etc., as if they were--drum roll--people.

To hear him tell it, William Wegman is as close to his animals as he is to his wife or his two young children--the animals that, for 30 years and about three dog generations, have been his meal ticket on the commercial side of photographic art. It's hard to believe the criticisms leveled against him by rabid animal lovers--that he exploits man's alleged best friends to his own advantage--as he speaks lovingly and matter-of-factly about Man Ray, Fay Ray, Chip, Chundo, and Batty, among others. He even autographs his latest book, Fashion Photographs, with his own signature, plus a doodle drawing of a dog's head, a cartoon heart, and the scribble, "Love, Chip."

Man Ray was Wegman's first Weimeraner, a short-haired hound dog of a German hunting breed that he favors exclusively for his pets and his art.

Two Dallas galleries are howling over William Wegman's fashion photos with dogs...
Two Dallas galleries are howling over William Wegman's fashion photos with dogs...
...and his lesser-known works without dogs.
...and his lesser-known works without dogs.

Details

Pillsbury-Peters Fine Art

Through May 20

2913 Fairmount
(at Cedar Springs)
(214) 969-9410

Through May 28

McKinney Avenue Contemporary
3120 McKinney Ave.
(214) 953-1212

"He looked like a little man," Wegman says, wistful and nostalgic. "And he was sitting in a ray of light that was coming through the window." Wegman is sitting in a small, dark office at the

, attacking three tall stacks of his books with a fine-point pen. These are copies purchased by fans during his stay in Dallas, and each awaits the promised autograph. Wegman dislikes these tasks, not because he's a prima donna but because his eyesight is starting to fail him, and he has an arthritic back. Yet, even in his 50s, he retains a boyish charm; his hair and his clothes are rumpled, even though he's about to meet a swarm of adoring fans. "Unfortunately, a lot of my work is this," he says, gesturing toward the books and the waiting public. "The dogs can't be with me."

You can see plenty of what you already know about William Wegman's work, and a few things you might not know, around Dallas this month. Both Pillsbury-Peters Fine Art and the MAC have a number of Wegman's classic fashion photos, with the artist's own dogs all dressed up. There are also examples of the human models with Weimeraner heads in various states of dress, just like the odd half-beast, half-human beings that are appearing in Honda commercials on network television. But what's been relatively un-commercial and unseen until these concurrent shows is Wegman's penchant for working with brush or pencil, creating images sans "the dogs." One wall at the MAC is dedicated to Wegman's drawings, which are amusing, simple plays on words expressed as rudimentary images with headlines hand-printed by the artist. For "Chinese Food, 1978" Wegman writes the two words in black ink using a Chinese brush. He's styled the initial caps into interpretations of Chinese characters. In "Gulls/waves, 1973" the artist writes the title as a kind of word fraction; the word "gulls" is printed, carefully underlined, and beneath the line is printed "waves." The illustration features pencil-thin V-shapes flying above their exact, inverted replicas. It's a hoot; a visual joke; a silly scribble of elemental birds in flight over uncomplicated waves rolling by. A lot of these drawings look like the kind of thing Wegman might doodle on a napkin at a restaurant and leave behind only to have them resurface, delivered reverently back to him by some sycophant, flatterer, or flunky who would be compelled to save them and swoon about their suitability for framing. "Not so," Wegman says, laughing. "That hasn't hit yet."

Wegman's paintings are primitive and naive, folk-art-ish renditions of day-to-day life, like a plaid-shirted man in "Gutters, 1986" cleaning out his roof gutters, or an historic tableau of black slaves loading ships in "Dock Scene, 1985." In a couple, he seems to combine his affinity for puns with his interest in oil painting on canvas. For "Vessels," Wegman uses trite turquoise and white paints to render puffy clouds above hokey white urns and sailboats floating on water. It's odd that someone as famous and commercially successful as Wegman would risk showing these mostly old works; a retrospective of his alter-artist ego that could be severely criticized. He says he shows them, and does them, out of sheer delight.

"I just hover over a piece of paper and make a mark maybe and suddenly something funny will occur to me," he says. "There's something really comfortable about sitting over a blank sheet of paper. That's such a wonderful place for your mind to pour right out on."

Wegman calls the work at Pillsbury-Peters "undressed." There are a few of his enlarged fashion Polaroids there, similar to those in the large MAC gallery, but his more simple, artful, and nearly abstract work is on view as well. "Naked dogs," he says. "Close-ups of dogs that look like landscapes. I think it's my most beautiful work, actually." He could be right. If you didn't know it was Wegman's work, you might believe that the undulating rumps, shoulders, and flanks curving against one another in "Wall, 1999," or "Lake Shore, 1999," one of several black-and-white Iris prints on view at the Fairmount St. gallery, were actual landscapes. Wegman's artistic eye is more apparent in this work, too, and not as easy to dismiss as the images that grace calendars, journals, and photo album covers.

The variety of work and the volume of it in these retrospective exhibitions will make you think twice if you're inclined to dismiss William Wegman as another Anne Geddes, the successful photographer who dresses babies in flower suits. Much of Wegman's dog work may be too mass-marketed for anyone to call it art; still, it's interesting to see the rest of the artist's "pet" projects.

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