New York

William Wegman

Sonnabend Gallery

Without worrying whether William Wegman is a Conceptual artist or not, his show at Sonnabend belies the notion that art focused on concepts is without humor. I found watching Wegman’s video tapes to be watching the funniest TV show I had ever seen. However, Wegman’s art is joke art only if by “joke art” we mean any art that makes us laugh; but Wegman doesn’t tell jokes, nor does he satirize art, the art world, or anything else. A knowledge of contemporary art is not a prerequi site to laughing at Wegman’s show; and unlike much of what gets included in “joke art,” Wegman’s humor is not a matter of a kind of noncommittal cynicism. What Wegman presents is essentially a different way of thinking about things (“things” in its vaguest sense), and while his different way is generally hilariously ridiculou s, it is never theless a genuinely different way and raises questions about the “everyday” mental constructions we place on things and events. In questioning these “everyday” constructions, there is no implicit rejection of them; but his questioning does show these “everyday” constructions to be a matter of convention, not bad or wrong convention, but simply convention. That the alternatives to conventional constructions which Wegman presents are both actual and ridiculous gives rise to their humor. In Sporting Footwear, Wegman earnestly describes the growing public demand for apparel that is multifunctional as well as decorative; he then shows us a new laceless fisherman’s boot which has the dual function of a boot and a water container. The second boot he shows has only one function, but it has a steel reinforced bottom, which is one way to think about a woman’s ice-skate, which is in fact a boot but hardly functions as such despite the steel reinforcement, and obviously, because of the steel reinforcement. Generally Wegrnan’s art explores the difference between the facts of a situation and the way we read the facts or what we infer from them. The ice-skate is a boot and it is reinforced with steel in a certain sense, but those two facts do not add up to a steel reinforced boot because of the peculiar way in which the steel reinforces; and we want to say that the steel is not there, in this case, for reinforcement. In Rage & Depression, Wegman smiles as he tells of his uncontrollably violent outbursts that landed him in a mental institution where he received shock treatment which had the effect of imposing a permanent smile on his face which people always take to mean that he is happy.

In addition to the video tapes, Wegman’s show consists of photographs more or less in the same spirit but probably not as generally successful as the video works. But all the work is straightforward, deadpan, and full of delicate surprises and questions.

Bruce Boice