New York

William Wegman

Sonnabend Gallery

Something of a Minimalist Ernie Kovacs in his video work, William Wegman’s incisive timing, eye for absurdity, and ironic deflations of expectation (shaped by popular television) delicately convert the most banal situations into wryly entertaining parodies of themselves. He makes stooges of his viewers by manipulating their credulousness through his deadpan sincerity in purposefully insipid skits—showing us just how addicted we are to the predictable and trivial both in the media and in our lives. In his best tapes we become a captive audience of psychological props, like his docile protagonist, the Weimaraner May Ray, whose attention is manipulated while performing the most feeble tricks, no more interesting when they succeed than fail. Wegman seduces his viewers to the threshold of boredom through his progressively ironic “persistence in a situation,” a strategic idea of Duchamp.

In his recent exhibition of works on paper (photographs, drawings, cutouts, etc.) Wegman has attempted to extend his video strategies to fixed spatial images, with a little help from words. Some of the pieces are engagingly subtle conceptual pranks, others jejeune sight gags. Without the readymade foil of the television experience he has had to contrive other carpets of expectation to pull out from under us. One favored ironic technique seems to be a kind of perspective by incongruity. Many of the works are photographic diptychs where Wegman mutilates, manipulates, or some way transforms two similar images to call attention to absurd differences, mocking the very orderliness of perception (again the viewer is his shill). So we have a work of two separated photographs, each showing an unequal “half” of a bicycle, front and rear, with Wegman satirizing expectations of symmetry by cutting out circles where the wheels would have been either if the halves were equal or the unequal halves joined.

In other dual photographic works he deflects expectations by setting up strong perceptual frames of reference in terms of image repetition, frontality, scale, fixed point of view, and then selectively sabotaging them by adulterating positions, surfaces, edges, or the staging of the actual photograph in one or the other of the pair. These works satirically prey on formalistic conceits, but on the whole they seem contrived; the razor-slashed or painted defacements of the photographs call attention to a kind of vandal aggression which eclipses irony. Despite his light touch Wegman can make his intentions too obvious at times.

More unnerving and psychologically fertile are some of the drawings—cartoons really, occasionally with laconic captions. Like Thurber or Steinberg, Wegman’s wit here can achieve the condition of paradox, as he reaches deeper within himself for dreamier material. He can give us a frail sketch of a hybrid seal/diver with two minestrone cans as scuba tanks, captioned: “Drowned.” Or he’ll offer up the ripple-filled contours of a French curve and call it “Man made lake.” It another spare sketch a perplexed-looking boy holds a piece of chalk beside a column of figures. Above his head a thought cloud shows “10.00,” but the sum of the figures adds up to “9.78.” Of course, we are sucked in by the discrepancy. Though we may chortle at the boy’s depression, we are the dupes, teased into adding the sum ourselves to ascertain the obvious miscalculation. Wegman puts us through the paces as we perform on cue. It becomes natural to extrapolate one of his tutorial video skits: perhaps it would be called “Man Ray Learning Arithmetic.” Other drawings seem similarly conceived as ideas for hypothetical video routines. In these and elsewhere Wegman is strongest when he can breed the idea of an idea. His best works on paper work best in time—like his video—through ironic reverberations in the spectator’s mind.

Richard Lorber