Best known for his just-this-side-of-cloying giant Polaroids of his Weimaraner dogs, William Wegman has kept one foot in the elitist high-art sphere while cultivating larger commercial success since the mid-'70s, when he broke from his post-art-school conceptual experimentation to work with his beloved pooch Man Ray. In video shorts and photos, Man Ray's malleable charisma supported all manner of irony-laced visions: Wegman gives Man Ray a spelling test, Wegman dusts Man Ray with a pile of flour, Wegman pokes Man Ray's growling snout to produce funny motor noises.
Wegman's deadpan presentations played the perfect foil to Man Ray's eagerness. When the dog died of old age in the '80s, new Weimaraner Fay Wray stepped in to continue the thematics, and since then, her various offspring star in Wegman's now-familiar scenarios.
The Dutch/American documentary Wegman's World uses the artist's recent photo shoots in upstate New York as its hub while occasionally breaking off to explore his past work. And though the tone is reverent, it hints at Wegman's restlessness with his oft-narrow current work.
Throughout the years, the artist's work, while increasingly ingratiating and accessible, has maintained its striking, alien quality. Weimaraners have a haunted melancholy in their eyes and a reptilian angularity in their lean bodies. When Wegman perches them on rocks and in boats, dresses them up in costumes, and poses them in stark landscapes, their odd appearance and Wegman's edgy eye for surrealism save the huge photos from abject cuteness.
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Wegman's World lets these facts emerge without pushing them; when Wegman steps back from the camera to watch a 30x22-inch Polaroid develop, we get to watch, too, and the results are often impressive. Wegman loves to talk about his creative process, mostly a hit-or-miss, spontaneous daily effort, and he outlines his career history with an honest lucidity most artists won't approach. When he speaks of his painting phase, a mid-'80s obsession that slowly gave way to his realization that the last thing the art market wanted was Abstract Expressionism from the dog man, he sounds both relieved and sad.
Nonetheless, the too-brief clips of his earlier work show a punchy, gritty wit lacking in his newer stuff; it could be we've all grown used to seeing his portraits on postcards and T-shirts. But in Wegman's World, Wegman himself comes across as a bit weary, somewhat cashed out, as though he knows that this canine legacy--if he's to maintain artistic integrity--should be put to sleep sooner rather than later.
Wegman's World shows Saturday, March 7, at 8 p.m. in the Electronic Theater.