I’m lapping up a frozen yogurt in the cafe at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada. There’s a Wegman show on. He’s the guy who photographs Weimaraners wearing clothes. Not just clothes but high fashion couture: Armani, Chanel, Gucci. Pumps, suits, gloves, veils, furs, wedding gowns, postiches. Enlarged Polaroids of poker-faced, indulgent dogs — mostly his current pet, Fay Ray. People are laughing a lot. It’s a pile of fun.
Not just photos but drawings; simple and acerbic, like minimal cartoons. And a darkened room with a long string of videos — “Selected Works” starting in the early seventies: Close up of dog drinking milk from a glass. Dog taking spelling lessons. Dog watching something off camera. Dog catching a ball and not dropping it into a can. Dog fondled by Wegman as a satirical advertising ploy in the hope that viewers will think Wegman to be a good person. Dog kissing Wegman. Wegman wiggling his nose, picking it, etc. Raucous observers, splitting their sides, endure shaky camera work and long periods where nothing much happens. Then there’s the tension and the desire to reach out and help the dog that tries to get the cookie out of the milk bottle. The dog that sleeps soundly until his alarm clock goes off. The dog that patiently endures fluffy, inedible things randomly falling on him until he loses interest and the falling things continue to build up all over him. Metaphor. Insight. Microcosm. I’m wagging.
Meanwhile, in the gallery gift-shop, people are picking up Wegman calendars, puppy books, posters, cards, fridge magnets, dog doodads, videos. Swept up in the euphoria, we choose a video: “Fay’s Twelve Days of Christmas.” Dog cleans house, makes fruitcake, entertains friends. Altered perceptions. I notice a bit of growling as people are impatient to get to the cash register.
PS: “My background is in painting but in school in the sixties, like many artists of that time, I believed that painting was dead. I began to work in collaboration with other artists in the creation of performances and installation works. Soon after I started making video and photographic works and in the process became fascinated with the media itself. Before long I was setting things up just for the camera. In l970 I got a dog and he turned out to be very interested in video and photography as well.” (William Wegman)
Esoterica: Wegman says he understands his dogs. He says he stays within the boundaries of keeping the dogs happy. “The cruel thing is to neglect the dog, to not work with them. Anyone who’s watched us work sees that the dogs perform willingly. Sometimes they’re blase about it, and sometimes they’re excited or enthusiastic, but they’re not afraid.” (William Wegman)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Dog as medium
Name withheld by request
The point in your William Wegman letter is that the gates are open to use anything as a medium. Dogs can be used as a medium. Through the further medium of photography and video even impermanent elements — and many are now being pressed into service — can be used. These thoughts may possibly upset subscribers who do not have the imagination to accept that live dogs (or cats or skunks) can be used to jog our minds and sensibilities into seeing things differently.
Examining new relationships
Bern Jensen, Denmark
Your mention of shaky camera work and long periods where nothing much happens gets to the crux of installation work these days. If production values are too slick and professional, the work will be rejected by curatorial staff. They need to look at art that shows the exhibitor to be less than competent in technique, and more than competent at examining new relationships.
Nude lady and nude Rottweilers
Bev Willis, Fresno, CA, USA
My daughter was walking her dogs Buddy and Sissy. Two Rottweilers from a house along the way bolted out the front door and attacked her two dogs. Our daughter started yelling and calling at the dogs and trying to separate them. The lady of the house where the dogs had come from heard and saw the commotion and ran out the door. She was wrapped only in a bath towel, evidently having just come from taking a bath or shower. She called to her dogs and ran after them, trying to get hers to quit attacking. Then to our daughter’s amazement, when she looked up, she saw that the towel around the lady had completely fallen off and she was in her birthday suit, still trying to catch her dogs and bring them inside. Our daughter finally managed to gather both her dogs up. The story you told was odd because the dog was wearing the clothes (intentionally), the story I have just told you was odd because the woman wasn’t wearing any clothes. (Unintentionally) Is this a paradox or a couple of paradoxes (Rottweilers) or what?
David Lloyd Glover, West Hollywood, California, USA
What about that other popular dog image you find mostly in trailer parks? — dogs playing poker.
(RG note) The most recognized gambling paintings ever created are the various renderings of dogs playing poker by C. M. Coolidge. Surveys have shown that “anthropomorphized” dogs are among the most recognizable artwork of any type. Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1845-1934) was born in upstate New York and began his career as a druggist and a painter of house numbers and street signs. He also founded a small newspaper called the Antwerp News. Coolidge was already known for his paintings of dogs playing cards before he was approached by the publishers Brown & Bigelow. The company hired him to create calendars and other advertising products. Coolidge is credited with producing 16 paintings of dogs for B & B — most of them playing cards. You can see more of Coolidge’s dog paintings at http://www.dogsplayingpoker.org/gallery/coolidge/
The Society for the Promotion of Modesty in Animals welcomes any attempts to dress dogs, horses, cats, etc. For too long they’ve been allowed to go around in the nude — which has brought on all kinds of permissive behavior in public — including the fouling of streets and parks. Dogs should at least have diapers.
P.R., not art
Suzy Olsen, Tuscany, Italy
William Wegman is a good Public Relations person. An artist?, not likely! Many artists say something is dead because they are unable to make it a live subject in their minds or heart. His themes are based on his advertising ability to carry out his message. It is banality. As a viewing public, we do well with that kind of diffused, squeeky clean respectability… not bad for this guy, he has managed to pull off terrific images that maximize pleasure for the Hollywoodized eye balls of our “dollars matter” based culture.
I used to see his shows popping up in galleries, museums and felt disappointed with his “museum quality photographs” plastered all over the walls. I had wished to see something more profound or interesting! Banality is doing just fine right here in America! It’s funny, something banal has a quality that resembles non-life. So maybe someday, Wegman will let his dogs actually be dogs so we could enjoy reality for a change. Might be interesting to portray his dogs as they are for a change. I would rather see a dog humping a kid’s knee, wagging tails when meeting nose to nose, jumping for joy, seeing their smiles when they are happy in context with real life experiences. When we eat Chicken McNuggets, we know that these tasteless morsels are far from the reality of what a chicken is programmed genetically to do or taste like, but we go right ahead and consume them as good advertising can suggest we ought to eat them anyway. It is not hard to see the same distortion of reality with Wegman’s dogs, since the advertised image is so cool, clean cut and museum chic. Hey, we ought to buy these photographs as everybody else is! Gosh, those dogs must be starving for a real feathered, bloodied, almost dead organic scratch-the-ground chicken to eat! I bet they would just absolutely love that taste of live blood thumping right into their numbed jaws! Yowie!, Let’s have fun being alive!
(RG note) William Wegman’s site is at http://www.wegmanworld.com/
Cesar Girolamo, Italy
The city of Paris employs a team of specially trained workers to clean up more than 20 tons of dog deposits per day. Something similar happens in Rome. Dog population in the USA has grown to 65 million, up from 55 million ten years ago. Now it seems we want to honour them in art galleries. Enough is enough.
Keep both ears
Lou Hoover, Cordova, TN, USA
The letters from Julie and Jonathan seemed to be a before and after ad for Celexa. Julie, you seem very angry about things that really don’t affect you personally. If someone wants to paint nothing and can manage to sell it to someone who wants to see nothing, then be happy for their success. It does not diminish you and what you desire, or the work you do. I personally dislike watercolor; I find them to be weak and ineffectual, so I just don’t paint with them. Jonathan, I have been on antidepressants for years. In fact most everyone is in my family. We have a genetic thing. I do have to make myself work harder, but the quality of life makes it worthwhile. I am a landscape painter, so perhaps the beauty of the world helps me with the creativity and inspiration aspect. Don’t give up. Talk to your doctor. This may not be the right drug. There are many others to try, but Celexa is very clean in regards to side effects. I take Celexa. I have often wondered if Van Gogh had been medicated, would we have had all of his beautiful art. Maybe and maybe not. But he probably would have kept both ears and not died young, insane and in a hospital.
Creativity and medication
Terri Steiner, Princeton, MA, USA
In reply to Jonathan Smith’s letter about creativity and medication for depression. First, YES this could just be a natural “artistic phase.” Creativity waxes and wanes. Jonathan, a question… Did you write best when you were depressed? Is that what inspired you to write? Was that your fuel? Maybe now that you aren’t depressed you need to find another inspiration/muse for your creativity. Perhaps try the following:
Always take responsibility for yourself and your actions — remember, it’s your life, don’t just be a passenger and follow the “experts” passively, without question — YOU have to live with the consequences of whatever decisions are made.
2) Have a support person that you truly trust, and will support and be honest with you (someone lets me know when I’m getting manic — I can’t always recognize it). If you have a mental illness (I hate that term) you need someone who can recognize symptoms when you can’t, and help you do something about them when you don’t want to. You must have an agreement to listen and comply with that person’s observations. This is a difficult thing to live with, any form of mental illness. Not looking sick, or being able to take a blood test, or having some concrete test. People in general don’t often take this seriously and worse, we, ourselves, are able to go into denial that we even have this disorder. I suggest reading “Touched with Fire” by psychiatrist (who is manic depressive) Kay Redfield Jamison, so you won’t feel so alone as an artist with depression. Keep searching for what is right for you. It’s not easy, but those hard won rewards are great.
(RG note) Eric Maisel is releasing another book soon — his twentieth. “The Van Gogh Blues — the Creative Person’s Path Through Depression.” Maisel is a psychotherapist and creativity coach. His website is http://ericmaisel.com/
Artists who cannot draw
I was pleased that Julia Sawyer had something to say about Nicoletta Baumeister’s double talk art crap. Many galleries are attempting to fool the public. These people cannot draw, a first requisite of fine art, so they make up reasons and excuses. Nicoletta said absolutely nothing intelligible, and she can support, and condone, “Artists that masturbate and mix the semen with paint,” if she wants to, but they are ‘sickos!!!’ Anyone sponsoring them or calling that, Art, is ‘sicko’ also. Thank God for the Julie Sawyers and the websites she endorsed, to get people back to reality!
Not very good
If you look at Wegman’s drawings and paintings, which he is now trying to do after all these years of taking photos, you will see that he is not very good at it. His efforts in this direction are at best amateur, and you can see why he should stick to photography and merchandising.
It surprises me that artists such as Julia Sawyer should be so ignorant and write so vehemently from such a limited point of view. Art cannot ever be exclusivist and dictate what individuals may try. Leave the exclusivist tendencies to religions. Sure there’s lots of lousy, simplistic stuff out there, but don’t you think people have the right to give it a spin? That’s what freedom is all about. Where the failure comes is in the appreciation game — and, when it comes to art, the “better educated” are unfortunately the most at fault. So be it. Try to see the humour in it all. Be philosophical. Julie, you should be saying, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend until death your right to say it.” (Voltaire)
Me and my art
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Paul Kane who asks, “Do you think that figurative painters would not find Mark Rothko complex?”
And Mary Jane Mailloux who writes, “Not that I don’t think Wegman is good and funny, but if I’ve limited time to see something, I prefer it be in a medium I’m more familiar with.”
And Carol Lyons of Irvington NY, who writes, “The idea for artists in Wegman’s dogs is to do something original (not bizarre), but quirky, amusing, satiric, and do it well! ‘It’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.’”
And Emelyn Palm who writes, “Wegman’s work makes me think of Morris Graves’ (Coming To Our Senses) ideas about dogs in our culture being T.O.’s (transitional objects).”
And Jim Tower who says, “When your letters arrive my wife prints them out and puts them beside my chair. I read them and then turn them over and do a drawing on the back.” This also includes Judith Wray who is today helping to hang a collection at the University of Medicine and Dentistry, Piscataway NJ, which may or may not include the work of Matthew Cervenka. “There are 3 thirty-one foot walls each 10 ft high. There are about 12 pillars, rectangular, not round, which means one can hang flatly on either and both sides. And then there is a double-sided hallway and two nicely lit areas by the men’s and women’s rooms.”