New York

William Wegman

Sonnabend Gallery

Like Buster Keaton, William Wegman seems to lack a regular sense of humor. He operates in total and sustained seriousness, oblivious to his effect and to the discrepancy between his situation and the one from which he is observed. He shares with Keaton a consistently straight face and his own innate and appropriate sense of timing. Unlike Keaton, however, Wegman is not a misfit at odds with a larger, more powerful, and normal world, who, at the end of some epic, ultimately wins, proving himself right as well as funny. Wegman, as either performer or character, is not the central issue of the work; he remains relatively anonymous, almost invisible. Nor is there any real narrative in an extended sense, although Wegman is quite interested in different kinds of narration and their discrepancies. Wegman works with video in his studio in an intimate manner, one which excludes the “normal world” without creating an alternate one. This exclusivity, Wegman’s low visibility and the casual brevity of the video pieces are all the more interesting because, almost in spite of these qualities, the work reverberates with unexpected complexity. What is funniest may be Wegman’s ability to cram so many references, in such unlikely combinations, into work which seems superficially loose and thin. The pieces are consistently open-ended; ultimately it is difficult to know just what we are laughing at. They seem, finally, most concerned not with being funny but with the notion of humor itself; and with the difficulty of locating just what is funny and why.

In one short video piece Wegman pulls the front of his tee-shirt out to a point and talks of his trip to Egypt. There wasn’t much to see except the pyramids and, noting that even they weren’t as big as he expected, Wegman lets go of his tee-shirt which snaps back to his chest, illustrating the pyramids, and his disappointment, in a strangely hermaphroditic manner. With an equally eccentric method of illustration, Wegman narrates a tape in which he describes three movies he “saw,” demonstrating each one with a different kind of metal “saw” blade. This and a number of other tapes use triple narration: a demonstration, moving but silent lips, and dubbed-in words not too different from what the lips seem to be saying. The lack of synchronization is just one more thing out of whack; the ideas and visuals (the various “saws”) don’t jibe so why should the sound and the visual? It also gives these pieces an added home-movie/high-school filmstrip kind of narrative quality. Two of Wegman’s more recent tapes are extremely complicated, particularly one in which he has a real art-world interview with a pianist, playing both interviewer and interviewee, while the camera is trained on a playing record of piano solos (the music forms the background accompaniment). The pianist is planning concerts in “Italy, Amsterdam, Rome and also in Holland” and they take off from there, getting Venice and Amsterdam confused because they both have canals, discussing whether the artist is left- or right-handed (he’s ambidextrous). The interview, like the record, goes round and round, spiraling into a dizzying obscurity of European cities and musical terms.

Wegman also exhibited a great number of drawings done on standard letter-size bond with what looks like a slightly too light #3 lead pencil. Like the tapes they seem thrown together and, when they work, they have the same reverberating tangle of allusions and references. The most affecting referred explicitly to human nature. In one of these Wegman sketched a group of boats passing a series of wooden docks. On each dock someone says “See the Boats” to someone else who responds “Yeah.” The drawing made me flash on generations of spectating Americans stating and confirming the obvious to each other as it passes before their eyes, and the frequency of such exchanges at any single point in time, during any given event. Other drawings are about logical absurdity. One, labeled Whale Thinking About Gravity, depicts a whale sitting, like Ferdinand, under an apple tree, while an apple, like Newton, plunges toward his head. Such a direct hit would make anyone consider gravity, but aside from that, any whale on dry land would probably already have gravity on his mind, assuming that whales think about anything. These drawings are wide-ranging, and often genuinely loose and thin. The best are as good as any of the tapes; they do as much with even less. The weakest fall into two extremes and clarify what Wegman so often succeeds in avoiding: total obscurity on one hand, and obvious corn on the other.

––Roberta Smith