Irony is one the most overused conceits in contemporary art. So much so that the term “ironic hipster” has become part of our current lexicon. I’m tired of ironic hipster art, minimal drawings coupled with what are meant to be pearls of wisdom encapsulated in a tagline. The current show of vintage William Wegman drawings and videos at Salon 94 Freemans, Drawings for a Better Tomorrow and a Worse Yesterday, reminds us that there was a time when irony in visual art was a fresh and delightful concept. Wegman’s quirky view of the world holds up to the test of time and shows just how meaningful a few well-drawn lines and well-chosen words can be when crafted by the right hands.
Most of these drawings and videos are from the 1970s, when William Wegman was a shaggy-haired guy who always schlepped a dog around with him. I met him when I was a freshman in college. He showed up to my class (dog in tow) and spoke on a relatively new art form for the time: video. He was lovely, self-deprecating and, above all, generous to students. That spirit of generosity has always come through in Wegman’s art. An attitude of inclusiveness is ever-present throughout his body of work. Wegman respects and invites the viewer, rather than carrying on with a sense that “there’s a joke here, and you’re not cool enough to get it,” an attitude that is pervasive among some of his hipster successors.
Several of the standout drawings in the show are so slight that it takes a good second look to see how deceptively complicated they really are. To describe them and give away the punchline would be to do the work a disservice. It’s that momentary collaboration with the viewer by which a simple drawing and a few words combine in a flash of delight and recognition. A smattering of drawings from the 1980s are included, and it is evident that Wegman continues to view the world with a bemused intelligence that shows no sign of wearing thin.
In the videos we get to re-meet the soulful Weimaraner Man Ray, a dog with a face so expressive he could have been a silent movie star. Wegman sets up the most absurd situations: The artist chiding Man Ray about the dog’s spelling errors, Man Ray in bed with an alarm clock. Somehow, through the gentle art of irony, he makes those encounters both hilarious and poignant.
This exhibition is a refuge from the jaded contemporary art scene. See it and remember another era in the art world, one that could genuinely make you smile.
William Wegman, Drawings for a Better Tomorrow and a Worse Yesterday
Through Oct. 20 at Salon 94 Freemans, 1 Freeman Alley. Call 212.529.7400 or visit
www.salon94.com for more information.
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