William Wegman at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery; plus J.P. Donleavy at the National Arts Club; Margaret Neill at Cheryl Pelavin Fine Art
MAN AND DOG ARE A PARTNERSHIP MADE IN HEAVEN. Who doubts that seraphim keep spaniels or cherubim guard Eden with hounds and retrievers? William Wegman’s genius in exploiting canine responsiveness to social cues is one of the sweetest pleasures of contemporary photography. The artist once complained that he was “nailed to the dog cross.” That is just where we want him.
|William Wegman, untitled, 1981
“Wegman Outdoors,” a survey of photographs taken between 1981 and 2007, combines classic Wegman images with new work that emphasizes the artist’s outdoor color photography. The show coincides with the opening of Mr. Wegman’s new video work “Around the Park,” a film shot in Madison Square Park and staged there on outdoor monitors.
His kennel of canine performance artists has carried off a long-running series of Dogs-R-Us tableaux. The troupe summers in Maine, making landscape a natural backdrop. Landscape themes threaded through Mr. Wegman’s conceptual work in the 1970s. Posed studio shots of Man Ray, his first Weimeraner muse, moved easily into outdoor mode a decade later.
In several of the most recent images the animals appear more as geological forms than dogs. A reclining couple or the outline of a haunch, viewed at very close range, seem part of the landscape, like rocks and hills. But it is Mr. Wegman’s playful anthropomorphism that makes the most of his gift for double effect, both droll and elemental.
The dog in “Waterwork” (1998), poised against the vistas of the Rangeley Lakes region, appears to be standing on water. The stance is hieratic, the gaze intense. Christ on the Sea of Galilee? Or Washington crossing the Delaware? A 2007 image finds a Weimeraner draped, with surprising feline languor, on an ambiguous outcropping. The scene mimics the repertoire of wildlife photography — the cougar lounging on a tree limb.
At quick glance, an untitled 1981 photo seems a straightforward shot of a “No Hunting” sign posted on a tree. But look again at the telltale contour of that pile of autumn leaves at the base of the trunk. It is Man Ray, hunched under a thick suit of fallen leaves. A hunting dog loose in a game preserve needs camouflage.
"They always ask me what my art stands for, and I tell them it doesn't stand, it sits." Mr. Wegman’s one-liner encapsulates the whimsy that makes his photography so engaging. Something of the shalom of Eden lingers in the rapport between the artist and his Weimeraners. And there is a cherub in his Hasselbad.
“William Wegman: Wegman Outdoors” at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery (21 East 26th Street, 212-213-6767).
WHO NOW READS DONLEAVY?
Everybody, it seems. J.P. Donleavy’s “The Ginger Man” has been in print nonstop since 1955. Translated into a dozen languages, the novel remains a monument to the status of rebellion as a nostalgic tradition.
But styles of rebellion go out of fashion as fast as they are consumed. In time, the unbearable lightness of institutionalized revolt weighs on the bohemian soul. Respectability, the last mutiny, beckons. That brings us to Mr. Donleavy’s watercolors, opening today at The National Arts Club and his first exhibition in his native country since 1959.
The expatriot novelist, now established on an historic estate in the Irish Midlands, began exhibiting in Dublin in 1948. He admits to being drawn to painting by Jack Butler Yeats’s prices. It is risky to take a story teller at his own word; Mr. Donleavy, after all, is his own tall tale. Still, the claim rings true by the look of things.
|J.P. Donleavy, Roll On Eternity and Keep Off My Toes, 1953
Though work ranges from the 1950s to the present, this is not really an art event. It is a promotional gig that enlists art-and-literature to “throw in the fancy touches,” as Huck Finn might say. On sale are souvenirs of the avatar of Sebastian Dangerfield. Instead of Ginger Man mugs and t-shirts, you can buy a finger in the eye by the man himself.
Assertively unschooled — dubbed Outsider Art by his Irish dealer — the work upholds the fictional Dangerfield’s favorite posture: defiance.The reigning aesthetic is summed up in give-a-damn titles like “Of Course I’m Aching For A Screw” There are crude beasties with exaggerated sexual parts (“That’s Right Like My Mouth It’s Big”), artless female torsos (“I Don’t Know Why But He Likes Them This Size”), and toothy fish. Claimed relation to Klee is too superficial to pursue.
An occasional graceful line or felicitous burst of color hints at what might have been if Mr. Donleavy had bothered about the difference between a drawing and a wisecrack. Instead, he banked in toto on the hipster pose. Dangerfield wanted the comforts of material success without the trouble of acquiring them. Just so, Mr. Donleavy wants to be crowned heir to Saul Steinberg without having cultivated that artist’s enchanted eye or his blithe hand.
Remember the chapter in “Huckleberry Finn” where two scamps, the Duke and the King, stage their backwoods Shakespeare Revival? Twain’s King called himself the Dauphin of France; Donleavy is a painter. Thespians, both of them.
“J.P. Donleavy: In Some Of His Sins And Most Of His Graces” at the National Arts Club (15 Gramercy Park South, 212-475-3424)
MARGARET NEILL IS AN ABSTRACT PAINTER who sets herself the rigors that many painters turn to abstraction to avoid. She works within clearly defined contours and reaches for a spatial complexity that is more often the domain of representation than of abstraction. Her first exhibition at Cheryl Pelavin is poised, accomplished, and welcome.
Although Ms. Neill begins intuitively, with no prearranged sketches or plan, there is nothing accidental in the result. Undulating organic and ovoid shapes float across the canvas, billowing or narrowing like magnified ripples on the face of a pond. The canvas edge stops our view of liquid motions that glide over each other, headed beyond the confines of a rectangular frame.
|Margaret Neill, Circuit, 2007
“Vantage” (2006), typical of Ms. Neill’s most compelling compositions, suggests captured motion, driftage fixed for an instant in passing. Lateral movement is enriched by planar depth achieved by the optical blending of layered colors scraped over the underlying design. Multiple symmetries are kept from redundancy by shifts in weight and transparency. Her color is modulated with refined precision; each plane cuts crisply into another.
The rhythmic subtleties of “Circuit” (2007) are entrancing. A central core of softened orange eddies downward into a pink swell that embraces the pale violet penumbra of a darkened zone of shifting, variegated greens. At the same time, the central warmth rolls upward into a divided complement of blues and blue greens. A striated, downward scumble of contrasting hues softens linear edges and veils each color segment in a harmonizing mist of intermediate tones. It is a lovely performance.
“Wink” (2007) is the most dramatic composition on view. A play of pastels carve their way out of a black void in a structure that resembles the cross-cut view of a botanical drawing. A clear cadmium red fills an off-center axis that from the void like the stamen of a lily. Here, spatial interest surrenders to graphic flourishes spread across the same plane.
A series of three mixed-media works on paper could almost be by someone else. Here, gestural forms go wiggly, slackening Ms. Neill’s distinctive control. But press on to the back room to see the imposing “Jag” (2007) and two small canvases that rhyme with the finely graded color and defined current of the larger painting.
Cheryl Pelavin Fine Art (13 Jay St., between Hudson and Greenwich streets, 212-925-9424).
These reviews appeared first in The New York Sun on September 13, May 10 and May 24, 2007, respectively.
Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey