William Wegman

Huntington Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art

For “Strange but True,” an exhibition of forty new 20-by-24-inch color Polaroids featuring William Wegman’s weimaraners, the photographer took as his inspiration sideshow banners from the ’40s and ’50s. The dogs were placed in front of the banners along with such props as ropes, nets, costumes, and wigs. The resulting photographic fantasies played on the irony of words and the perfidy of images through cleverly humorous juxtapositions. Using one of the rare large-format Polaroid cameras that he first began working with in 1978, Wegman and his team of assistants shot most of the photos right in the gallery itself. Selections from a series of Polaroids taken in the summer of 1997 at the Addison Gallery of Art in Andover featuring the dogs Battina and Chip in front of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographers’ backdrops were also included, as well as six vintage circus banners and a short related documentary video.

The artist uses the visual impact of the kitsch banners to great effect in Safety Net, 1998, a grouping of four Polaroids on individual panel boards in which the dogs are absent. Close-ups of a banner feature flatly rendered images of a dancing girl with enormous feet, a man with a minuscule waistline, an Asian man balancing a ball and chain from his ponytail, a nude woman walking on a pile of knives, and the words “ALL ALIVE.” Wegman partially reinvented the pictorial sequence of the vintage backdrop, cropping the images and visually linking them through the cascade of orange netting that appears in each shot. In comparison with these sideshow freaks, the beautiful, slim, gray weimaraners seen in the other works offer a semblance of normality.

Wegman dramatizes and parodies the iconography of the banners with his placement and costuming of the dogs. In 1/2 & 1/2, 1998, Battina and her son Chip appear on a table before a circus backdrop that reads “1/2 Bear 1/2 Monkey.” Wegman arranged the dogs one in front of the other, head to tail, to simulate a single creature with a head at either end. The final composition is elegant in its minimalist colors and forms: the off-white tarp, the red lettering on yellow ground, and the velvety beige dogs, whose forlorn, obedient amber eyes present a sweet yet unsettling pathos.

In Al, 1998, Battina sits before a banner painted by sideshow artist Johnny Meah that features two men with their eyes “bugging out.” Plastic eyeglasses placed over sliced Styrofoam balls dotted with circles of electrical tape for eyes are positioned upside down on the dog’s snout to match her companions’ “pop eyes.” (The Styrofoam bug eyes and Battina’s seated pose are reminiscent of Man Ray’s 1982 photograph, Frog/frog II, in which an old dog, tinted green and wearing rubber fins, gazes at a rubber frog with Ping-Pong-ball eyes.)

Wegman is not afraid to embrace the grotesque, as in the marvelously gothic Underworld, 1998. Here, the dog becomes a monstrous hybrid, mimicking the bizarre canvas backdrop of Barracuda Ape, also by Meah. The dog, photographed in profile, has her face covered with a wrinkled rubbery mask; her eyes are covered by tiny plastic skulls. A mangy black wig covers her head and her left paw echoes the shape of the orange fins of the barracuda. Dog and backdrop merge to create a hellish image.

The sideshow, a politically incorrect remnant of the days when it was acceptable to gawk at conjoined twins or fabricated freaks, isn’t far removed in spirit from the irreverence that led Wegman to dress up his dogs in the fmt place. Like his circus of dogs, these works challenge the notion of what is factual and what is illusion.

Francine Koslow-Miller