Happy Talk

William Wegman, his dogs and his talking belly

There's a reason most "happy art" is pissed on by critics. Not only does it tend toward the insipid, but also it can be positively reactionary, a nostalgia wank-off for a pristine time that never was. Don't believe me? Go to any mall in America and examine the works of the devil himself, Mr. Thomas Kincade.

But you don't always have to be Friedrich Nietzsche or Sylvia Plath to get critical respect. Hell, Roberto Benigni got an Oscar. The more turbulent the times, the more often you need to take a break and look at pictures of cute doggies doing funny things—right after your hydrangea-scented bubble bath.

And these are not easy times, both despite and because of the booming economy. Americans work the longest week in the world, and there's a distinct sense of unease underlying all that SUV-buyin' prosperity. And then, of course, there's the hostility and rudeness that come with good times: I got mine; now get the fuck out of my way. It's the mid-1980s all over again. Just ask anyone who got her head stepped on at the May 6 benefit for Dennis Danell's family at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

William Wegman's kind, gentle works at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) date back 30 years. And even then, when painting was so ferociously passe and artists so adept at sneering, Wegman was sweet. Even when clearly mocking other Conceptual artists, Wegman's pokes seem less derisive than teasing.

There are some drawings in the retrospective and some video works, but mostly there are Wegman's photos. And they don't skimp on the Weimaraners. Hello, doggies!

Wegman went along with the crowd in the '70s, doing "far-out" documentations of body art and looking like a refugee from the Velvet Underground. But despite his ski cap and junkie uniform (most notably his greasy hair—très Trainspotting), only once does his body art even come close to disturbing, with the creepy Photo Underwater. In the 1971 series, he shows himself from the throat up, his head thrown back (from that angle, he looks strikingly like Henry Rollins) while water streams into his mouth. In the next shot, his entire head is covered in the rippling water, and he looks like a drowned, bloated corpse or the mangled victim of an acid-throwing maniac.

But that one example seems more an attempt to fit in with the groovy-ghouly times (and experiment with some photographic special effects) than any actual morbid world-view. While Wegman certainly seems to have felt his share of loneliness and rage, it just doesn't carry over into his works. Normally, Wegman's work does not show him having himself shot like the endlessly pretentious Chris Burden, nor shooting up (or pretending to shoot up; it was ambiguous) in front of an appalled audience like our own anachronistic Squelch. Instead of shocking, Wegman is unabashedly goofy, even Pollyannish. Like LA hero Peter Alexander and his unfashionably cheery (and blatantly orgasmic) '70s sunsets, Wegman wasn't in it to look alienated and bored. I'm surprised he wasn't pilloried by all the Studio 54 glamour cats till he bled from the neck.

In one incredibly lo-fi video, a shirtless Wegman sits in a chair and sucks his belly in and out to a soundtrack of your basic, "Oooh. Aaah." Sucked in, his navel puckers and his gut looks surprised. Puffed out, it looks like it's belching or falling asleep. Whichever, his nipples look marvelously like eyes, and Wegman goes on and on like a retarded 13-year-old boy, if that isn't redundant. Only in the '70s could it have been performance art—and then only by someone who was absolutely unconcerned about looking cool. It's hilarious.

But forget his gentle Conceptual work; Wegman will be forever associated with his precious puppies, dressed as brides and grooms and doing funny human things like driving cars. Proof that this is art ought to be the fact that the dogs take up one of the two OCMA galleries devoted to Wegman (though only one of the pups is shown in human clothing). But is this art when they're so damn accessible and popular among the coffee-mug-toting, calendar-buying masses? Everyone I know has a picture of these goddamn dogs. And if they didn't look commercial before, Fay Ray and Battina (Wegman's Weimaraner models also include Chundo, Crooky, Chip and Man Ray, who died in 1982) are now selling cars in big, polished—even cinematic—television commercials.

Wegman needn't worry. Most critics bend themselves into cute li'l mobius strips trying to justify the doggies as art. They talk around and around and never really answer their own questions except to point out that the Romantics didn't consider animal portraits art, but since the doggies seem to exhibit a certain Weltschmerz, they must be okay. The critics justify their love for the dogs by pointing to Wegman's Conceptual works; he's so sly there, he must be doing something more than sitting bulldogs around a poker table.

You know how critics are. But here's the thing: the critics want to marry Wegman's Conceptual work, and Wegman's Conceptual work just ain't that good. It's often silly and charming, but the word used most often by critics is "banal." You'd think that would be bad; you would be wrong. Critics adore the banality of it; it's possible to say that next to irony, banality is the pillar of postmodern art. So if it's okay to like the banal Conceptual stuff, you can certainly enjoy the Weimaraners. They're a lot better realized—technically, emotionally and from a narrative standpoint. Large-format Polaroids (they come out of the machine at 20 inches by 24 inches) seem filled with liquid; as light shifts, you think you could actually grasp the classically limned muscles of the dogs' legs. They're as perfectly saturated with color as those lovely (and hella funny) Visa Olympic synchronized-swimming ads—and now the dog portraits have ads of their own.

Do I approve of prostituting oneself to Madison Avenue? Not particularly. I may be the only person in the world who is still offended when rock stars sell their songs to the Man—and most of them never even pretended to have integrity. But I could also start yakking at you about Weltschmerz, so my opinion and a buck could get me a cup of coffee. If it takes some fetching ads to get you into the Orange County Museum of Art, I don't mind. Hello, doggies!

William Wegman at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Through July 16. $4-$5.
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