A Most Excellent Dog and Pony Show

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom

In the spring of 1975 we received a short note from Bill Wegman that contained the drawing reproduced here of a parking meter with its arrow in the red zone—“expired”—and labeled on its face, “video applause meter.” The occasion for this cryptic message was a letter we had sent him following an exhibition of vdeo art we had organized for the Smith College Museum of Art in the fall of 1974. The show consisted of a series of daily tape programs plus video installations representing most every major American artist working in video at that time (including Andy Mann of Houston, then living in New York City). Wegman’s “Selected Works” were the clear hit of the week-long even, and we wrote him saying our tabulations from the video applause meter indicated he was the popular favorite of the museum’s enthusiastic audience.

From early in his career, Wegman’s relation to his audience—"fans," more accu­rately—has been that of a comic actor who knows how to transform straight-laced, dumb situations into the enduring pleasure of wise and gentle humor. No party is injured; everyone is amused. The effectiveness of his absurd monologues and sight gags only seemed to be enhanced by the ridiculousness of his means: a chair, a (slap)stick, ladies’ pocketbooks, spray can, photo lamp, his own face or stomach. But no prop in Wegman’s world of plain and banal things could equal the charm of Man Ray, his first canine partner, straight man, and video co-star of the 19-inch luminous screen. It is safe to say that through the combination of minimal staging and Man Ray’s responsive personality brought Wegman recognition beyond the general run of video artists in the early 1970s.

But, as we know, this is no one-talent Bill. His use of photographs and drawing demonstrated, from the beginning, the same canny humor addressed to our collective cultural pretensions about the serious business we believe Art must be. The operating standard of Wegman’s videomanship, its apparent artlessness and look of unselfconscious, ad lib invention where familiars are enlisted to play out largely silly roles is also characteristic of his black-and-white photographs (eg, Doing the Dishes, 1972). Man Ray made regular appearances in these conceptual photo works, many of which were composed in multiple frames; however, the static image of subjects kept at a distance from the lens limited the impact the man/dog relationship could have on an audience and did have in the videos. One exception to these limitations is the four-part piece, Looking At, 1973. Photographed at fairly close range, a triad of woman, dog, and cat take turns looking at one another. AS the unseen fourth party, we trace the alternating triangle of deadpan stares between real woman, real dog, and paper car (head only) who’s pupils sift appropriately. All the permutations of looking and being looked at are carried out, as in any respectable conceptual work and, typical Wegman—it’s the flat, black paper cat who articulates the visual geometry and who animates its delightful pointlessness.

It didn’t take long for people, many people, to realize that Wegman, master of low-budget video and the photographic joke without a punch line, was a brilliant humorist (Saturday Night Live embraced him in the mid-1970s) and humanist (emphasis on the small ”h”). Somehow his audience sensed there had to be in all of his absurdities something simple, honest, and true. Besides, his dog thoroughly trusted him. What he was dishing out to us really was a good dose of anti-aestheticism on four legs, inverted dogmatism about the nature of established art—if you will permit the pun. His best work has always appealed to our constructive imaginations, and imagination is only constructive to the degree it is liberated from dogmatic constraint. This project was not his alone, however; others had led the way, John Baldessari most conspicuously. But only Wegman had Man Ray on his team: Baldessari might try to teach the alphabet to a houseplant; Bill Wegman could correct his dog’s spelling!

Enter the pony. That homely, anomalous contraption, the Polaroid 20x24 camera, had a large presence on the photographic scene in the 1980s. Well, not exactly the camera but its rich, glossy product that provided photographers instant gratification on a scale such as never before possible. Given his origins in video and photography, it’s surprising Wegman was ever seduced by the Polaroid aesthetic, although apparently he did resist. Artists change, of course. There were very likely a number of factors that contributed to his turn to the handsome print as art object. We might speculate about one of those: Man Ray had entered he bare stage of Wegman’s work as easily and innocently as any other prop or actor; once there, however, the dog’s winning ways inevitably made him a principal, not just another walk-on. An audience was generated around the appearance of this gorgeous Weimaraner (a perfect Zone V) and that audience wanted to see him as often as Wegman chose to show him.

The large format “instant” Polaroid offered Wegman the immediately viewable result that he liked so much about video, which meant an idea could develop out of the kind of spontaneity with which he is comfortable and confident. At the same time, the camera was so infinitely satisfying in the ways it enhanced Man Ray’s “inscrutable” presence. The rest is well-documented history—including the sad loss of of Man Ray and his eventual replacement by Fay Ray. Over the last decade, Wegman’s prodigious output on the Polaroid has secured his reputation, and, even though he has done many strong pieces without canines, it is nonetheless t he widespread perception that he’s “the guy who does dogs.” In collaboration with John Reuter (as the “pony master” from Polaroid) he as become, in spite of himself, dog trainer to the art world—incidentally pushing the pony into deeper water than anyone had before (i.e. in a Maine Lake on the back if a pick-up to do the dogs—in—the—canoe shot).

Returning for a moment to the drawing with which we introduced this piece, it seemed curious that a so-called “video applause meter” would be turned into a parking meter. We read the allusion rather directly: Wegman was apologizing for the six-month delay in responding to our communication; he had been “parked” on it so long the meter had expired. Considering the pleasures we have derived from his art during the past eighteen years, it may appear ungrateful to apply that same graphic metaphor to his photographic production of the last several years, but perhaps there’s no better way to say it: in our opinion, he has been parked too long on the “dog and pony show” even though the applause meter may be suggesting otherwise. It is a hard act to sustain at the level he began; brilliance inevitably diminishes into cleverness.

For all the commanding ease and apparent innocence of the dog photographs, there are fundamental and inherent problems with man representing animal. Historically speaking, modern man has been putting nature on a shorter and shorter leash, fully intent on controlling if not destroying wildness. Of course, canines threw their lot in with humans a very long time ago; so it may be said that they have been complicit in their own servile domestication. Nonetheless, we humans see them as standing far closer to animality than ourselves. In this ambiguity of hierarchical status, the dog represents the ascendancy of man over beast or the gulf between. Such is the case no matter how many human attributes we dress them with in our fables and satires. The power of representation, of representing, lies in our own hands and in itself amounts to domination by signification. It is our own stories we humans are telling when we enlist the dog, the bear, the fox, the crow, or the frog in the staging of our “truths,” When we do attempt to look into their world, through their eyes, our description of what we see in their inscrutability is always construed as mysterious or ineffable. It is the animal inevitably viewed as Other.

It must be said that Wegman is not without a savviness in these subtle matters, and that he has effectively used absurdity and irony to convey his perceptiveness. Arm Envy, 1989, a tongue-in-cheek twist example of Wegman’s ability to catch us up in the trap of received ideas. On the other hand, the more the “dog and pony” show finds itself performing to meet demand, the less able it is to do more than entertain us within the comfortable setting of our collective preconceptions about nature as pet. Meanwhile Wegman’s fans continue waiting for the curtain to rise on yet another canine tableau.Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom are collaborative artists exhibiting under the name MANUAL. Both are professors of art at the University of Houston. They are also recent recipients of an NEA fellowship grant in photography.