William Wegman's Ode to Maine
“William Wegman: Hello Nature” focuses on the work the famed artist produced in Rangeley. Don’t be afraid to laugh along.
By Will Bleakley
Image: Fox Hole, 2002, Chromogenic print, Courtesy William Wegman Studio
You’ll often see someone with an amused smirk at an art gallery. Oh, I get it. That juxtaposition is so clever, the smile says. Rarely, though, does an exhibit elicit physical laughter. Yet during a recent visit to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art for the “William Wegman: Hello Nature” exhibition, the sounds of laughing patrons were impossible to ignore. Children, perhaps seeing Wegman’s famous Weimaraner photos for the first time, giggled at the sight of a dog, dressed in a flannel L.L.Bean shirt and fishing vest, posing as a Maine motel clerk. Their grandparents, across the room, chuckled as they flipped through Wegman’s parody of a nature book titled Field Guide to North America and to Other Regions. It’s hard to imagine a prestigious art exhibit succeeding at generation-spanning comedy, but from the sounds of high-and-low pitched squeals of approval across the museum floor, “Hello Nature” achieves just that.
As many people know Wegman’s work from the Museum of Modern Art as they do from Sesame Street or Nickelodeon. He’s contributed videos to Saturday Night Live, released children’s books, appeared on the Colbert Report, and has been called by the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith “one of the most important artists to emerge from the heady experiments of the 1970s,” as well as “the most accessible, and, in his own way, richly human of all conceptual artists.” His work is clever, deadpan, sincere, and devoid of any pretense despite his decades of success. But people already know this about Wegman. What Bowdoin College’s “Hello Nature” exhibition presents is a possible root for these traits: his nearly lifelong connection with and love for Maine.
“Hello Nature” provides a tour of Wegman’s work from the past several decades through the lens of nature. Nearly all the pieces in the show are unmistakably set in, or inspired by, Maine. Unlike those famous artists beguiled by Maine’s coast, Wegman finds himself drawn to the state’s western mountains. “In Maine, I’m able to do more day-dreaming and wandering,” Wegman says, unlike his more scheduled life in New York City. “Here I get the chance to try things I’ve never thought of before with my art.” He first came to the Rangeley Lakes Region to go fishing when he was fourteen years old, and has summered there for the past thirty years. “There are many autobiographical details in the show that relate to his time in Maine,” says Joachim Homann, the curator at the museum. “But they raise questions that go beyond Maine and his successful dog photography.”
Kevin Salatino, the former director of the museum, and Diana Tuite, the former curatorial fellow, curated the exhibit to focus on all aspects of Wegman’s work — not just the dogs. The running theme of Maine and nature had never been fully explored, and it proved perfect for explaining Wegman as an artist and person, while also unifying his work across paintings, photographs, collages, books, drawings, and film. The opportunity to showcase his work around the central concept of Maine freed Wegman to invest himself in every aspect of the exhibition. “I’ve definitely been much more involved with this show than others that have displayed my work,” he says. “There have been larger and more difficult shows, but this had a more curated and focused aspect to it that sounded interesting to me.”
Thanks to Wegman’s involvement, everything throughout “Hello Nature,” from the unusual, confounding, and irresistible catalogue to the design of the exhibition, is coated in many layers of wry humor. On one wall, a series of framed photographs of his dogs obstructed by the Maine woods hangs in front of a floor-to-ceiling graphic of a red and black plaid hunting jacket. A visual from a 1927 Hardy Boys novel takes over another wall in a separate room while, elsewhere, illustrations of camping scenes, or drawings of the alphabet, weave their way around framed contact sheets of leaves, a confusing recipe for potato macaroni salad, or an interpretation of a Rangeley Lakes Region travel brochure. “Wegman made the decision that he wanted to create this exhibition as an environment for viewing art that’s very different from a normal gallery setting,” explains Homann. “He wanted to leave a strong impression on people rather than just adding one picture and a frame on the wall.”
“The show became a direct expression of the intention of the artist,” he adds. “That is something you rarely achieve if you work with contemporary artists. They are constantly doing so many other things and the communication might be poor, or they might have an attitude. But this exhibition was done exactly the way Wegman wanted it.” Another big draw for the artist was the freedom to produce a genre-bending catalogue with his wife, Christine, his team of assistants, and designer Laura Lindgren. The book is equal parts autobiography, fiction, essay, nature guide, exhibition catalogue, and homage to Wegman’s time in Maine.
The real revelation of “Hello Nature” for many will be Wegman’s lesser-known postcard paintings — an aspect of his oeuvre that both the artist and the museum chose to focus on. He takes recycled postcards of Maine, places them on a canvas, and extends the scene in unexpected ways. The piece Way Up in Maine begins with a simple fifties-era postcard of Doubletop Mountain and Sourdnahunk Stream. “He looks at it, then forcefully interprets something that’s not obviously there, but theoretically could be,” Homann explains. “It’s almost a child-like imagination. Things really start to spiral out of control quickly.” The rock in the lower right hand corner of the postcard, when incorporated into Wegman’s vision, becomes the nose to a hound with its head turned. The tree branches in the upper right turn into the antlers of a moose drinking from the stream, while Doubletop Mountain provides the butt to Wegman’s duck.
“The things I create are observations that are more odd or strange, and those can end up being funny,” Wegman says. “When I start putting things together, I guess I do have a funny bone, so that’s why it turns out that way in the end. But I don’t go into something trying to make it humorous.” The funniest piece of “Hello Nature” is his twenty-five minute film, The Hardly Boys. In it, a couple of Weimaraners with human arms, head to the Hardly Inn in Maine to catch butterflies and play golf, croquet, and badminton. Wegman provides deadpan narration as the two protagonists are thrown headfirst into a mystery where they must help save the town’s water supply from pollution.
“Hello Nature” allowed both Bowdoin and Wegman to highlight his Maine influence and affection for the state in a charming and lighthearted manner. A show that so embraces accessibility, comedy, and playfulness could seem at odds in a stereotypical self-important New York contemporary art gallery. In unassuming Brunswick, Maine, though, that style fits right in. “Wegman is still a highly academically trained artist. He employs the philosophy of and criticism of the postmodern period but he brushes it away to display his work in a way so that anyone can eat it up. That’s such a rare, wonderful mixture,” Homann says. “In his art, and in person, he’s so understated and down to earth. Exactly the way we all like it here in Maine.”
If You Go: “William Wegman: Hello Nature” runs through October 21 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Mr. Wegman will be giving a talk on October 18 at 4:30 p.m. in the college’s Visual Arts Center. The museum is located at 9400 College Station, Brunswick. 207-725-3275. bowdoin.edu/art-museum