Although William Wegman made his reputation as a photographer who combined wry humor and conceptualism, his two recent exhibitions showed him to be an accomplished painter with a sophisticated, highly individual style. The concurrent presentations at Sperone Westwater and Magenta Plains focused on, respectively, his recent “postcard paintings” and his early works on paper. Wegman made his first paintings based on postcards in the early 1990s, and his method has remained consistent ever since: he selects postcards from a large collection he keeps in his studio, glues them on top of wood panels, and fills in the empty spaces around the images with painted marks, shapes, and figures. Despite this narrowly defined set of procedures, the resulting paintings differ greatly from one another in composition and mood.
Among the biggest of the paintings at Sperone Westwater was the sixteen-foot-wide triptych The great indoors (2013), which shows a panoramic view of a vast interior—a strange mix of an airport terminal and an international art fair. Several alcoves in the sides of the great hall contain different landscapes—a desert, a lake, snow-covered mountains—and the floor and ceiling of the space are packed with colorful semitransparent blocks, their rapid foreshortening emphasizing the magnitude of the place. Peering closely at the vanishing point of the painted interior, viewers will discover that the entire construction expands out from a single postcard floating around the middle of the central panel, depicting a cozy room decorated in green. Similarly, the landscape imagery springs from several different postcards, the photograph at the core of each scene elaborated on in loose, confident brushwork. Avoiding literal depiction or detail, the artist relies on compositional logic and precisely matched colors to make the hybrid images fully believable.
The spatial and visual acrobatics of paintings like The great indoors are anticipated in earlier canvases on view, such as Aerial (2008). Although measuring only fifteen by twenty inches, it contains three different postcards—bird’s-eye views of a medieval town and a rural landscape, and a photograph of a market with a few buyers wandering between fruit and vegetable stalls. With fluid brushstrokes and a superb sense of color, Wegman has blended the three incongruent images into a single bleak landscape, the painted green and orange background wrapping around the postcards like a clump of moss. Licensed vendor (2011), meanwhile, strangely distorts and stretches out a colorful image of a European town before dissolving the scene in a periphery of mud-colored paint. The most fantastic of Wegman’s postcard paintings appear oddly convincing: they have the logic and persuasiveness of dreams. In the paintings, as in dreams, a few vivid details stand out from a foggy, ambiguous, or chimerical background, tricking the mind into accepting the whole construction as entirely credible.
Among Wegman’s works on paper at Magenta Plains were altered photographs dating back to the 1970s and a selection of humorous drawings and cartoons from the 1980s and ’90s. The best works in the show highlighted the ambiguousness of seemingly straightforward images; several appeared to presage Wegman’s recent paintings. In Miranda (Girl with Milk Bone), 1979, the artist used gouache to apply fake makeup to a photograph of a girl, turning half of her face into a lascivious mask clashing disturbingly with the rest of her smiling face.
While neither exhibition included films or photographs featuring Wegman’s Weimaraners, the impact these dogs had on his work makes their presence felt, despite the prudent omission. Weimaraners have been Wegman’s ideal props—intelligent, playful, and malleable, capable of creating countless filmic and photographic situations. The postcards appear to function in a similar way: each holds in itself a nucleus of a painting, the photograph anchoring the composition and generating limitless possibilities for image making.