The art of this dog is“Being Human”

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Art lovers who own dogs, and dog owners who love art should be especially attracted to Being Human, the show at MASI Lugano (Museo d’arte della Svizzera Italiana) that opened on September 9, 2019 and runs through January 6, 2020.

Regular habituées of MASI should be drawn to the show’s artist, William Wegman, whose conceptual work has been featured in international exhibitions since 1969. Dog people who are familiar with Wegman will delight in the focus of this particular show. The irony of its name stems from its subject matter — Weimaraners.

You don’t have to be a fan of these supremely elegant silver-grey dogs to recognize them as Wegman’s muse for more than 40 years. He has been an artist for a decade longer than he has been a dog owner, but his international reputation soared when he began collaborating with his first Weim.

Man Ray, named for the avant-garde artist, came into Wegman’s life in 1971, when the Massachusetts-born painter moved to California. “My then-wife wanted a handsome short-haired dog,” he explains. “We didn’t know anything about dogs and were thinking of a Dalmatian. Then someone offered us the last in a litter of Weimaraners for the sum of $35, and we said yes.”

Man Ray was only six weeks old when he came to live with Wegman. That young age, plus the fact that Weims tend to bond tenaciously with their owner, may explain why Man Ray wound up spending so much time in Wegman’s studio. “He thought he was human,” recalls the artist.

Not long after, he became fascinated with the studio potential of Polaroids, and began experimenting with 20 x 24 Polaroid cameras. Although Wegman had not studied photography at art school (“artists and photographers were considered different callings years ago,” he explains), they provided a depth of perspective and a color richness that appealed to him. Man Ray was already in the study, and Wegman admits, “I like grey dogs and Weims like to work.”

After Man Ray, Fay Ray came into Wegman’s life and studio. “She loved being a dog,” he chuckles, and delighted in being his model. A case of serendipity became an ongoing collaboration that has encompassed 10 Weims, including present day Topper and Flo.

Flo loves playing the diva, but Topper has had a few health issues; he loves eating rocks during summer vacations in Maine. This folly aside,

Weims are ranked as extremely smart dogs, but they have the reputation of being difficult to train. That has not been Wegman’s experience. He says they get used to the studio environment, and they like being elevated {in his set pieces} He does not use carrot-or-stick to train them: “ I don’t punish them and I don’t reward them with treats. Nor do I Photoshop my pictures.”

Polaroid’s bankruptcy in 2007 forced Wegman to adapt to digital photography. “I had an existential crisis,” he confesses, but he has come to appreciate the color values of this newer medium.

Being Human depicts the dogs in a variety of humanlike poses and situations. “They are mirrors of our own existence,” claims curator William Ewing. The 90 photos and 10 prints are divided into nine sections: People like us; Tales; Masquerades; Nudes; Hallucinations; Vogue; Cubists; Color Fields; and Sit/Stay. There are also 18 short videos and video snippets featuring Wegman’s Weims over the years. The commentary, by curator Ewing, is as witty and double-edged as the artworks, since it evokes a dog’s perspective as well as a human’s.

Wegman confesses the one drawback of working with Weims: more than other dogs, they are extremely prone to separation anxiety. So when he travels abroad, which is rarely, his wife cannot accompany him. She has to stay home with the dogs.

Note: you may want to bring YOUR dog to this show, but the Swiss are firm. No animals (other than seeing eye dogs) are admitted.

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