New York

William Wegman

Holly Solomon Gallery

William Wegman without his weimaraner Man Ray is like Dean Martin without Jerry Lewis, or Edgar Bergen without Charlie McCarthy. Wegman wrote the scripts for the skits the two put on, but much of their success derived from the dog’s personality. He was the perfect naif, hilarious and touching because emotionally transparent, incapable of dissembling, endlessly patient no matter what folderol Wegman put him through: an alter ego any self-deprecating artist would willingly accept.

No doubt Ray’s spirit will hover around Wegman’s work for a good while longer. But in the 20-by-24-inch Polaroids shown here (along with a few drawings/ watercolors) Wegman has moved on to metaphorical tableaux with a more varied cast of characters. Questions of sexuality are central (well, what do women want?), particularly in a group of pictures featuring one or both of two female types: a sweetfaced little girl in a tutu and a woman body-builder, usually frozen in a narcissistic flex. In Composition and Like So, both of 1984, Wegman offers a schematic argument about acculturation, with the child, all innocence, looking to the woman for guidance: in the former she draws in a composition book while the woman bulges her muscles; in the latter she tries to ape the coy, self-absorbed stance of the body-builder. That these poses are intended for men—and intended to wound—is suggested by the pencil points that stick out like nipples from the woman’s fuzzy pink sweater. In Frightened, 1984, Wegman makes the female threat more explicit. The little girl, still in her tutu, stands with her back to us, teddy bear in one hand and knife in the other, confronting four men—including Wegman—who cringe in terror. Death is the other main theme in the work here, represented by “funny” fabrics—animal-skin patterns, gold lamé, and the like—that are used repeatedly as shrouds. In Foster Parents, 1984, the little girl, now dressed in a plaid skirt, stands between a “mother” and “father” whose heads are covered with animal-skin swatches.

The hammy style of these scenes gives them a burlesque air, but as in his last work with Man Ray, Wegman’s campy staging doesn’t much hide how serious the subjects are for him. You can’t choose bigger issues to deal with than sex and death, and Wegman certainly seems sincere in his evocation of them. But what is lacking is the liberating edge of the unexplained and unexplainable that Man Ray’s personality—always a puzzle, never a question—gave to the earlier work. Now it is Wegman’s personality that dominates every scene. Tableaux vivants, whether serious or parodic, tend to be moral emblems, and these are no exception; but the form leaves little room for doubt. Inherently monumentalizing, it precludes question, freezing emotions and intuition in stony poses. Without stars who can transcend their roles, Wegman’s droll dramas have the odd effect of giving the figures of his puzzlement the unfeeling permanence of statues.

Charles Hagen