William Wegman’s Weimaraners are enchanting. For nearly 50 years, Wegman’s photographs of the sleek dogs with their deadpan expressions, sculptural bodies, and witty settings and costumes have captivated viewers. What a treat that the Shelburne Museum’s William Wegman exhibition has lots of the photographer’s famous dogs — and also includes much more of his art.
“William Wegman: Outside In,” an exhibition exploring over four decades of the artist’s fascination with the natural world, opened June 22 at Shelburne Museum’s Murphy Gallery in the Pizzagalli Center for Arts and Education. The exhibition includes drawings, paintings, portfolio pages from his handmade book “Field Guide to North America and to Other Regions,” and photographs of the Weimaraners, over 60 artworks in all.
Organized by the William Wegman Studio and Shelburne Museum assistant curator Carolyn Bauer, the exhibition also features several of Wegman’s recent postcard paintings including two new works inspired by archival postcards of Shelburne Museum.
Bauer, who worked closely with the Wegmans in planning the exhibition, noted that the show, like Shelburne Museum itself, may be described by one of her favorite German terms, gesamtkunstwerk.
“Gesamtkunstwerk means one total work of art,” Bauer said. “As we were compiling the checklist for this exhibition and I was working closely with Bill and his wife Christine we noticed these connections to Shelburne Museum.”
As Shelburne Museum with its diverse collections of collections that can defy easy description, the Wegman exhibition also includes diverse sets of the artist’s work done over several decades.
“If you package that all up, what you get is a total work of art that is a different experience for every person and a different experience for each person each time they see it,” Bauer said.
Wegman, with deep New England connections, has long turned to the outdoors and nature in his work.
“I have always been interested in nature and nature writings in particular, especially when it comes to clashing concepts of nature – American Transcendentalism, the Boy Scouts, Field and Stream magazine, new age musings, nature scrapbooks, et cetera,” Wegman notes in the exhibition’s introduction.
Wegman graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and embarked on his career as a painter in the 1960s, turning to photography and video within a few years. His early work was soon exhibited internationally in galleries and museums and featured in publications. While living in California in 1970, Wegman got his first Weimararner, Man Ray.
Wegman soon turned his lens on Man Ray. In wigs and costumes, posing on plinths, sporting surrealistic accessories, calm and poised Man Ray became a celebrity, even mourned as the Village Voice’s “Man of the Year” when he died in 1982.
In 1986, Fay Ray joined the Wegman household, beginning a new multi-generational canine collaboration. Along the way Polaroid connected with Wegman, outfitting him with one of only a handful of their large-format cameras, a camera that produced 20” x 24” instant prints. The format, Wegman, and Fay Ray and family were a fantastic match.
Among the large-format Polaroids in the show, Fay Ray in “Daisy Nut Ball” is decked out in a red hat and fruit, bringing perhaps to mind Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s 16th century paintings with faces completely composed of fruit.
Wegman notes in the captions, “It’s really Fay personified. She was so proud of herself during the shoot. She was like, ‘Wait, there’s room for one more nut.’”
In the three panel “Sent,” the dog, or perhaps three dogs, sit attentively in an Adirondack Guide Boat, lake and mountains in the distance.
Wegman’s expansive postcard painting “The Great Indoors” stretches across much of one gallery wall. In his postcard painting, Wegman extends perspective and elaborates on images in vintage postcards, using them, the captions note as “a point of creative departure.” “The Great Indoor” viewers are drawn into a huge interior space, with multiple postcards as portals between that interior and elsewhere.
Wegman created two paintings with vintage Shelburne Museum postcards. “Spiral Stair” swirls out from images from the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building and Prentis House. “Collected Rooms” has a cubist feel with spaces deconstructed, yet inside them are familiar Shelburne chambers.
Among Wegman’s nature and outdoors pieces, is one volume of his recent take on guide books, the oversized “Field Guide to North America and Other Regions.” Housed in a wood box and red-and-black plaid wool blanket, each of its dozen or so pages is its own artwork — a pictograph-style table of contents on birchbark, an extended vintage fishing scene, the dogs concealed in foliage.