Among a particular generation of Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live viewers, artist William Wegman is known almost exclusively for his goofy photos and videos of his pet Weimaraners dressed up in human clothing. Before he was a dog photographer, though, Wegman studied painting, a practice he’s continued, prolifically, to this day. William Wegman: Postcard Paintings, now on view at Sperone Westwater, highlights some of his lesser-known but equally funny and imaginative works in oil. The show coincides with the publication of William Wegman: Paintings (Abrams), a new monograph featuring essays by Amy Hempel, Robert Krulwich, and Susan Orlean.
Wegman is an avid collector of vintage postcards, picturing everything from ski resorts and famous artworks to Italian restaurants and bad ’80s fashion. To create his Postcard Paintings, Wegman glued some of these postcards onto wood panels, then painted fantastical scenes beyond their borders, elaborating on the printed images. The conceit could become a shtick in the hands of a lazier artist, but Wegman executes it with his signature humor and an impeccable handling of composition and color.
It’s art about art, but in a way that’s fun, not pedantic or particularly meta. That’s thanks to his brand of absurd comedy, made famous by Fay Ray the dog as Little Red Riding Hood — Wegman is a master of the visual punchline. One work, for instance, depicts a woman smirking in a gallery, surrounded by postcards that feature gold-framed portraits of dead white men in powdered wigs; she’s planning to hang a couple portraits of women alongside them to even the score. Another is a cheeky high-low mashup: in a gallery hung with postcards from famous art museum gift shops — including images of Picasso’s “Weeping Woman,” Goya’s “Saturn Devours His Son,” and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” — Wegman slips in a treacly winter wonderland by Thomas Kincade and a souvenir postcard from Yosemite National Park.
In some paintings, Wegman goes maximalist with the postcard conceit, creating MC Escher–like plays on our perception of space. In one architectural composition, the walls of a seemingly never-ending hallway are hung with progressively smaller paintings (postcards), creating a study of perspective and dimension that feels Cubistic. But the quieter paintings are some of the most poignant. In a hazy lavender landscape painted around a postcard of the Golden Gate Bridge, cars fade into question marks and dollar signs. Another features a landscape postcard with a man’s fragmented head that becomes a painting hanging on the wall of the man’s bleak office. It’s a melancholic illustration of the dissonance between fantasy-driven art and bland reality.
These are Matryoshka dolls of composition: the postcards become paintings within paintings. The best pieces are also games of camouflage, so expertly are the postcards blended into their surrounding scenes. Together, the works suggest a kind of infinite regress, a Powers of Ten–style zoom-out in which the earth itself is finally revealed as a picture on a postcard — perhaps in a galaxy shaped like a Weimaraner in a wig.
William Wegman: Postcard Paintings continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 23.