Wegman show kicks off at Brooklyn Museum

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William Wegman is more than a dog photographer.

So at a press conference at the Brooklyn Museum on Wednesday, there was Wegman, graciously displaying the same patience towards dog-obsessed reporters that he employs when arranging his beloved weimaraners into poignant and hilarious Polaroids.

Some reporters, after all, were frustrated that Wegman hadn’t brought even one of the grey pups with him for the photo-op.

But Wegman is quite serious about his art, which ranges far further afield than those reporters knew. And that’s the subtext of "Funney/Str­ange," the museum’s first retrospective of Wegman’s work in 15 years.

Spanning 40 years of his creative output, it includes paintings, collages, works-on-paper, artist books, black-and-white as well as color photography, and video works that Wegman directed and starred in. It will truly be an eye-opener for those who think the multi-talented artist only does splashy color photographs of those sad-eyed dogs.

"I wanted to give a sense of a mind that races, and I think that comes through in this installation," said Trevor Fairbrother, the exhibit’s curator.

Wegman said he felt the exhibition was nearly "suffocating" with the crowded amount of work it displayed, but felt that "the advantages are that it’s easy to make connections between different pieces."

"I’m glad that it’s all mixed up, that it’s not chronological or by media," said Wegman.

And in most of what this witty rural Massachusetts native has tackled, you’ll find a smidgen of humor, a lightheartedness that’s a breath of fresh air in the jaded art world.

The exhibition took its name from a simple 1982 ink-on-paper which depicts a ladder going down into a circle, a straw going into a circle, the word "strange" and the deliberately misspelled, "funney."

"He’s always playing on multiple meanings," Fairbrother explained. "He finds something twisted, then twists that, too."

But the artist told reporters that he initially shied away from the title of the exhibition - and the accompanying catalogue - and took a while to warm up to the idea of not just one, but his entire body of work, being labeled "Funney/Str­ange."

Examining one of Wegman’s most recent works, "Museum," Fairbrother pointed out how the artist’s use of vintage and new postcards were a commentary on all the different kinds of art people enjoy, whether it’s Michelangelo’s "David," paintings of cowboys, or two men chatting in a room full of hunting pictures. The mural also illustrates the way museums’ architecture, and the way art is displayed, has changed over time.

"And he throws himself into [the painting] by including a great dog Christmas card," said Fairbrother.

In the catalogue, Fairbrother adds, "I’m captivated by the curious fact that the maker of such mercurial, outlandish, and impudent creations often comes across in public as a quietly preoccupied guy."

Yet reporters always want to know about those captivating dogs. Whether representing Japanese television or photography journals, most of the questions at Wednesday’s press preview were about the weimaraners, starting with Man Ray in 1970, and moving to Faye Ray, and finally to Batty (short for Battina), who died two years ago.

Wegman told GO Brooklyn that it was fitting that there was so much of Batty in "Funney/Str­ange" because he was still heartbroken over her loss when the catalogue and this exhibition were coming together. In the exhibition, Batty is featured in 1999’s "Bikini"; she’s shot while wearing a leopard print bathing suit and a blonde wig, coyly looking over her shoulder.

The public clamors for details on how he trains the dogs - he currently has several that he’s working with - but there is only one room of the exhibit dedicated to his signature 20-by-24-inch canine portraits.

Mostly, "Funney/Str­ange" spans Wegman’s earliest years, the 1960s, to his most-recent landscape paintings, which often have intoxicatingly deep colors, especially his turquoise blue-green water and skies.

"Water is fun to paint," explained Wegman. "Somethings are more sensual to paint; water is one of the them."

The artist says that this retrospective comes at a time in his life when he’s "generally very happy," surrounded by his children (age 8 and 11) and dogs in his Chelsea home.

"It wasn’t always that way," he said.

"William Wegman: Funney/ Strange" is on display at the Brooklyn Museum’s fifth floor (200 Eastern Pkwy., at Washington Avenue, in Prospect Heights) through May 28. The artist will give a talk, followed by a book signing, on March 11 at 3 pm. Admission is $8, $4 students with ID and seniors, free children younger than 12. For information, visit the Web site or call (718) 638-5000.

"William Wegman: Funney/Str­ange" by Joan Simon (Yale University Press, $40) is available at the Brooklyn Museum gift shop.

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