William Wegman’s Way: A Recommended Route

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer meticulously investigates the circumstances of modern agricultural industries. Foer’s methodology accounts for the cultural paragons that shape human behavior, linking personal memories to certain gastronomical experiences. The writer proceeds by contemplating the ethical limitations that determine our consumption of animals, introducing a provocative question to illustrate the subjectivity of what we are capable of viewing as food: why don’t we eat dogs?

To the popular conscience, William Wegman’s art encapsulates the compelling etiology of the gut-reaction the canine question propels. Wegman’s mass recognizability resulted from his vibrant photographs of dogs. The artistic depiction of the generous companionship dogs offer to their owners is a sentiment that vastly appeals to mass audiences as the foremost point of reference. Wegman’s photography of his pets functions as a catalyst for most people to draw from their personal experiences to meaningfully engage with the oeuvre.

The inclusive familiarity and empathy the artist reaches by using his four-legged friends is indicative of the way he approaches his audience: he represents the genuine desire to exist with others and navigate the world empowered together. The base of the dialectic occurring between him and his audience roots to the powerful emotional connection both entities experience. Additionally, Wegman’s idiosyncratic sense of humor adds a layer of playful cognitive engagement in his dialogue with the audience. His decision to capture his dogs dressed in human attire was met with dithyrambic enthusiasm: the dogs managed to illicit a powerful feeling of awkwardness for “their” attempt to appear human.

Much like when encountering the saccharine Anne Geddes baby pictures, viewers of Wegman’s work are aware there is an additional layer of what happens between the artist’s subject and how the subject is presented. In our cynical culture, defined by diminished trust to share with other human beings, babies and dogs become the projections of human vulnerability. The narrative of dogs representing hope for lasting love is not a new one: in Homer’s Odyssey, Argos was the only one who was able to identify the return of his owner, after waiting patiently for two decades. Interestingly, Wegman uses the dog to help audiences that might have even been accustomed to an urban lifestyle, to exit urban domesticity.

Even during Wegman’s earlier work occurring during the popular predominance of  Conceptualism–such as the humorous way in which Basic Shapes in Nature (1970) framed the photographic medium–the artist liked to capture the element of inclusiveness to his audience. Wegman does not avoid partaking in the game of artistic authority because his artwork is incapable of presenting authoritative statements, but because the goal of his art closely emanates the ideology of New England transcendentalism. Wegman doesn’t explicitly verbalize his philosophy in a fashion similar to Thoreau or Emerson, but his stance is clear. The singular thread that binds his work in its totality is the theme of nature.

The artist’s purity of creative intentions set him apart in today’s predominantly performative art world. Throughout his career Wegman has repeatedly made an active choice to evade the adoption of the authoritative identity that seems to have defined prominent artistic figures of modernity. By undermining his artistic authority he actually rises above the limitations which accompany the exercising of the verisimilitude of power. Rather than pretending his art is a declarative statement or truth, his art forges a symbiotic rapport for those willing to navigate the world embracing many truths will exist. That is why the exhibit’s subheading clarifies How to Draw, Paint and Find Your Way: one’s way does not have to be Wegman’s.

The 35mm short, The Hardly Boys: Viewmaster of Interest (1993) comprises an emblematic paradigm of how Wegman brings the audience closer to nature through the provocation of visceral emotions experienced through his dogs, while always presenting a flummoxing case of undefined power shifts and his signature quizzical sense of humor.

The most admirable notion Wegman articulates as an artist is the portrayal of the astonishing beauty that can be found in ordinary lives, often using the dog as a guide to find, or remember, nature. Wegman gets people to think differently about a very familiar subject, and that marks his most remarkable success.

Image: From The 12 Days of Christmas, William Wegman, 2013.

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