May 5 – July 29, 2022
In the entrance to the Sperone Westwater Gallery hangs a framed sheet of paper on which, written in pencil, are the words “wall, wall, wall, wall…” and at the bottom, “floor, floor, floor, floor… » In the center of the page, away from the repetition of wall and flooris the word image. Deceptively simple, the written words synergize in an abstraction that not only represents what the viewer sees – a picture hanging on the wall in a room – but makes the viewer aware of their relationship to the work: wall, floor, picture. You’re standing here before this. Immaculate, simple and quite clever, Wall, Photo, Floor (1973) serves as the perfect entry point for William Wegman: writing by the artist, an exhibition of texts, drawings, photographs and videos taken from a practice that has been going on for fifty years. Like all things Wegman, the work makes me laugh, but it also stays with me, begging me to keep spinning it in my head days after the initial laugh.
As I signed my name in the guestbook, the gallery assistant mentioned that many of the works in the exhibition and the accompanying book of the same name were recently discovered by Wegman while moving from his home and his Chelsea studio to a new space and have not been previously shown. Drawing from strata of near-forgotten objects and ephemera, Andrew Lampert, the exhibition curator who also edited the book, brings together an abundance of samples that match Wegman’s fidelity to writing and language as much as than to his conceptual occupations and his absurd humour.
Much of the artist’s spirit lies in the way he pokes and probes the mundane, taking it into more ironic realms. South after six (1973) shows the face of a clock, its small hand pointing to the number six, its large hand to the letter S, drawn where one would expect to find the number two. Private show (1978) features a photograph of a young boy sitting on a grassy hillside apart from other members of his family, watching a small portable television that Wegman drew on the picture. Four works on paper from 1970 to 1971 feature typewritten text on sheets of Princess Cruise stationery that the artist found in a California studio he occupied early in his career. One piece in this series begins with the line, “I’m interested in knowing if the Department of Recreation and Parks will have another ironing class this summer…” Another reads like a doctor’s note and states, “We don’t know how you did it, but you have a necklace in you…” A simple 1973 drawing of two intersecting ovals becomes something more when captioned, X-Ray of Peach in dish (which is also the title of the 1973 work). Instead of erasing the line of the dish that should disappear behind the peach, Wegman adds handwritten text that alters the intent of the work while questioning the expectations and judgments of representative brand making.
Quietly absent from the show is Wegman’s best-known work, his photographs of Weimaraner dogs, though I did spy on Man Ray, his muse and original canine collaborator (or was it Fay Ray , the successor of Man?) in a video projection on one of the three monitors installed in the gallery which presents works from 1970 to 1999. In spelling lesson (1973-1974), the dog sits at a table next to Wegman, looking taken aback as his human counterpoint criticizes his writing for its many glaring spelling mistakes. In massage chair (1972-1973), the artist bangs a wooden board against the leg of a very ordinary metal chair, insisting that it is a new model of massage. Pert 2650305 (1999) shows Wegman in a kitchen holding a bottle of shampoo, reading its label and price tag as if the information it contains might reveal some deep meaning. It’s unfair to claim that the videos show Wegman at his best – in every part of the show, Wegman is at his best – but they shouldn’t be missed.
For most of the show, I found myself smiling and often laughing. The exception came in a large-scale painting, OH MY GOD (2021) which shows the chaos of a destroyed house. The words “crash, bang, boom” and ‘damn it’, alluding to comic book exclamations and charcoal writing among depictions of debris, bring explosive energy to the image, while at the bottom a line reads, ‘the 12, 5 million townhouses have been destroyed.” In this work, Wegman’s amusing regard for nostalgia seems to be replaced by a certain melancholy around temporality and impermanence. The left and right arrows on the edges of the image reveal that we are looking at a painting from a computer screen, and that within its domain the devastated houses and the stories they contained can be easily erased. Imagine what treasures could be lost.