New York

William Wegman

Holly Solomon Gallery

In the early ’70s, William Wegman was one of the first artists to gain attention for work that deliberately ignored well-established critical paradigms such as unity, mastery, and ambition. Instead of upholding the standards associated with the notion of integrity, Wegman has drawn “throwaway” sketches, produced “homemade” videos, and posed and photographed a weimaraner in an assortment of goofy costumes and oddball situations. While he is best known for his photographs, it should come as no surprise that he has, in recent years, started painting with the same uninhibited jauntiness, penchant for storytelling, and generous yet satirical humor that characterizes his strongest work. By adding painting to his repertoire, Wegman has not only further rejected the idea of consistency, but he has also escaped being categorized as an eccentric photographer in mid career.

The exhibition consisted of 10 paintings and 19 drawings executed between 1973 and 1988. Placed in a small room at the rear of the gallery, the drawings reveal the origins of the offhanded, sketchy style Wegman uses in his paintings. He consciously articulates his wide-eyed innocence toward painting’s status by covering the canvas with a mottled atmospheric ground of earth tones such as russet or ocher. Like a Rorschach ink blot, the ground functions as a catalyst for Wegman’s imaginative and free-associative powers. Finally, the artist’s placement of casually rendered dinosaurs, wild and domesticated animals, dancing farmers, and mildly sinister cavalry evokes his strong fascination with the aptly skewed perceptions that are an integral aspect of childhood.

In some of the paintings, Wegman suspends the images in a dense, atmospheric haze, so that they drift in and out of view; in others, the ground is utilized as a glowing backdrop. Irrigation, 1988, is a childlike catalogue of that process as it exists in nature, Roman history, and modern times. Revolutionary Skating, 1987, consists of four stick figures frolicking on a pond surrounded by a shroud of red and blue paint; a line of cavalry is simultaneously hidden within the dense haze and poised on the shore, as if ready to strike.

Wegman doesn’t concoct narratives so much as recall the moment in our development when a desire for the comforting structures of stories overlaps with a need to name all that eludes us. Paralleling his work in other media, Wegman’s paintings wittily undermine the categorized perceptions we routinely use in our approach to the world. Neither bombastic in his choice of images nor obvious in his matching the “correct” recycled image and style, Wegman continues to make uninhibited, unfashionable work that defies categorization.

John Yau