Firstly, I am sorry to ave been absent for so long on here. Sorry because I miss blogging when I’m away from it, rather than sorry because I believe I left a gaping hole in your browsing schedule. Still, a girl can dream.
I recently visited an exhibition at Edinburgh City Art Centre (the typically ugly website which comprises that hyperlink is a overture to the tone of this review,sadly).
The exhibition was a retrospective of the photography of Edward Weston, a 20th century photographer of huge influence and innovative style, and a sample of photographs and video installations made by William Wegman, a commercially successful contemporary artist known primarily for works based around his Weinermaraner dogs.
To simply dismiss an exhibition as ‘hideous’ would be to deny oneself the pleasure of critically dismantling it and reducing it to finely analysed dust. It would, however, be an economical and astute appraisal of the cumulative effect of hundreds of pictures of grey dogs, hung unpunctuated around two floors of white wall space. So, props to my sister for saying what we were all thinking.
Amongst dogs dressed as sexy film stars, dogs dressed as the devil, and dogs lying down amid landscapes which are, it must be said, beautifully chosen, there is a (very long) documentary lauding Wegman’s ‘genius’ and portraying the artist behind the work. Wegman attended art school in the 60s, and seems to have developed a style of anti-art, a deliberately ‘low’ style, interested in flat images, deliberately one-dimensional symbolism, and a contempt of what was percieved as the pomposity and rigidity of the establishment. What is troubling about his Weinermarana work, however, is the seeming lack of irony, contempt, satire, or response to the establishment, either in its own terms or in terms coined by him. These dogs are, simply, quite sweet. Sometimes, they are doing something funny. Sometimes, they are standing alone on a rock an it looks quite nice. Wegman speaks about photograhy as a tool through which to acknowledge mortality and the ephemeral nature of experience: all very well. What he neglects to explain is not his use of the medium, but his use of the dogs as subject matter. When discussing his dogs, he suspends his critical faculties and gushes like a doting parent. He notes their personalities, their foibles and their beauty, but none of these explain what they contribute to his greater artistic vision. He does not seem to believe that their grey ghostly quality captures the impermanence of any concrete presence in the world, nor does he mention that representing animals in an anthropomorphic way encourages the viewer to confront their own idea of human consciousness as superior, or interrogate the suitability of canines as motifs for elements of the human condition. Rather, he says that he thinks his dogs are quite nice, and that they are fun to photograph. Perhaps that is enough. And certainly, they are a stunning breed, and well suited to calendars and t-shirts and tote bags. I am not suggesting that art ought to be prescribed in its adherence to symbolism, reverence, or resonance. However, Wegman’s work leaves me feeling a bit short-changed. I like a bit of thought with my art, a feeling that what I am seeing is not entirely accidental. I like there to be a plan.
Edward Weston, in this respect, ticks all of my boxes. He was a portrait photographer by trade, to fund his other, ‘real’ work, and was awarded the first ever Guggenheim grant given to a photographer. His work is stunning, intimate, intelligent and heartbreaking. Or, it should be. Perhaps I was just suffering from dog-overdose, but his work left me, in the main, cold. I was immensely intellectually satisfied by his preoccupation with natural patterns, moments of symmetry in harsh landscapes, and the unfamiliarity of familiar objects when viewed through a lens. But emotionally, his photos seemed to hold a distance, an over-arrangement. Like the fantastical poses held by Wegman’s dogs, Weston’s photographs seemed somehow over-arranged, an unatural type of nature photography.
Am I fussy and hard to please? Yes. But somehow, both exhibitions made me reconsider what I feel constitutes a good photograph. The first conclusion? A lack of dogs. What every good artist really, really needs, is a lifetime abscence of obsessive pet-ery.