Several years ago, one of my very best friends tried to convince me that animals have no souls. Although I couldn’t help but disagree -- a lot -- I didn’t really give his statement much thought afterward. His “animals don’t have souls” comment came from a conversation we were having about whether or not to say “bless you” to a dog when he sneezes. Urban legend and rumor has it that at the very moment a person sneezes his immunity system is at its most vulnerable, and it is then that all manner of demons and evil spirits can seize upon the sneezer’s soul and overtake his will and destiny. Hence, the customary benediction of “Bless You” in the instance of any sneeze.
Years before that, a different friend’s dog sneezed, and she actually said, “Should I say ‘bless you’?” because, I guess, she didn’t want her dog all infected with demons and stuff. The thought made me laugh for years, but, I also thought ‘Why not?’ Why not bless your dog when he sneezes? It only seems natural. That is why my friend’s declaration that “animals have no souls” confounded me for years. I simply figured that all living things have souls, and I hadn’t really considered that other people might feel differently. After years of reflecting on, or obsessing over, my friend’s statement, I now believe that what he was alluding to was his implicit belief that animals cannot be witnessed to or “saved” in the most fundamental, born-again Christian sense of the word, and if an animal cannot spiritually redeem himself or surrender his life to The Lord, he, obviously, has no soul. I didn’t agree with his assessment then, and I still say “bless you” to animals when they sneeze.
I also sincerely doubt that internationally renowned photographer and dog enthusiast William Wegman would lend any credence to this opinion. Wegman has famously created a niche for himself as the world’s foremost practitioner of Weimaraner portraiture, and his signature prints, featuring his pets Man Ray, and later Fay Ray and her ever increasing brood, have been displayed in galleries from Dallas to Dusseldorf. Wegman’s dog work is instantly recognizable to anyone that has been within reach of popular media since the late 1970’s, and throughout the course of his 50-year career, his dogs have been featured -- outside of innumerable galleries -- in advertisements, children’s books, on Sesame Street, and Saturday Night Live. Heck, they even showed up in New Order’s “Blue Monday 88” video! Most recently, Wegman mounted Hello Nature, a series of multi-media exhibitions celebrating the outdoor splendor of his adopted vacation home of Maine.
Hello Nature, an installation created specifically for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, can stand as a succinct summation of the various dimensions of William Wegman’s work, as well as his life, that many Wegman aficionados are entirely unacquainted with. The show combines famous Weimaraner poses, of course, alongside Wegman’s “postcard paintings,” which begin with an actual tourist postcard that, through the space of a standard canvas, mysteriously and magically morphs into a completely new and unexpected environment. Hello Nature also includes outdoorsy meal recipes, such as one for “potato macaroni salad,” films of his dogs as detectives solving hotel mysteries, and simple conceptual pieces like “landscape color chart”where the words “blue,” “yellow,” and “green” are written on a blank piece of paper with a circle in the top corner. If Hello Nature were to be one’s first exposure to Mr. Wegman’s work, it would certainly cover all the ground necessary to appreciate his vast and varied output, and it would also introduce the artist’s freewheeling sense of artistic adventure and playfulness.
And it is this deadpan creative absurdity that underscores William Wegman’s earliest experimental videos. Fresh out of art school in the 1960’s, with an MFA in painting, Wegman turned his back on painting, considering it an irrelevant and dead art form, and devoted his attention to photography and experimental films. As a self-styled conceptualist, much of Wegman’s early work is infused with a humor that becomes more apparent and pronounced upon later consideration. For example, as Wegman demonstrates during one of his short films, chastising one’s dog for misspelling a word is funny, but contemplating the circumstances of why your dog would even be given a spelling quiz in the first place leads to whole other levels of comedy and wonder. Or, I guess, who doesn’t test their dog’s spelling occasionally? But then, something remarkable happens. As Wegman explains patiently to his dog the correct spelling of the word he got wrong, the dog shows remorse for what he has done. It is a very unguarded and emotional moment in an otherwise absurd scenario. And then Wegman utters those fateful, redemptive words: “I forgive you.” With this simple acknowledgement, William Wegman confers an exalted status upon his Weimaraner: he gives him a soul.
Throughout his career, William Wegman’s Weimaraners have seemed to overshadow his other work, which, on one hand, is unfortunate. It means that a fellow dog enthusiast who buys a William Wegman postcard or refrigerator magnet is probably unaware of the wealth of artistic material that Wegman has produced within his lifetime. On the other hand, it might be fortunate, in that once one gets past the incredible dog poses and portraits, there is still a universe of Wegman work to discover, should one be so inclined. Despite the propriety of his canine portraits, and the silent dignity Wegman’s pets bring to his work, William Wegman began his career as a wildly experimental artist, and that wild heart still beats beneath his innocent, playful exterior.
“About The Artist”
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.