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Art review: William Wegman at Marc Selwyn Fine Art

April 8, 2010 | 12:02 pm
400.untitled.35082a An exhibition of photographs by William Wegman raises great questions about truth, deception and storytelling, particularly as they relate to art and photography, trust and gullibility, knowledge and pleasure.

Even better, the selective survey of 10 small black-and-white prints from the early 1970s and six large works from 2004-08 answers these questions with such playful wit that it's hard not to fall in love with the way they make amazement seem to be the point of it all, the best part of life and a big part of art's job description.

Things begin simply at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, where an untitled photograph in the entryway greets visitors to "William Wegman: Some Tricks." Printed from superimposed negatives, the modest image shows Wegman standing in a studio, holding together two halves of a carefully cut sheet of black paper.

The stocking-footed artist presents the page to viewers with all the enthusiasm of a magician whose trick has failed. Wegman's sorry expression recalls the demeanor of an innocent preschooler who has done something wrong and immediately shows his teacher. The mix of trepidation and guilelessness is heartbreaking.

The simple yet befuddling composition of Wegman's picture makes the questions, "How did he do it?" and "What might that mean?" ricochet off each other with poetic power, gaining momentum and leading to profound insights if no ultimate resolutions. Photography's job, Wegman suggests, is not to tell the truth by laying it bare, but to tell a story that is so good it gets us involved.

In the main gallery, nine similarly scaled works amplify and expand on Wegman's step-by-step study of the way photography functions as art: as a way to engage the imagination without leaving reality behind.

In some, he uses double exposures to do the impossible: iron the shirt he is wearing, turn an apartment inside out and pour coffee right through a cup and the table beneath it.

In two diptychs, he employs rudimentary props – fishing line, tape and a butter knife – to make it seem as if bodies and objects can disappear. In an untitled image from 1972, 3-D reality and 2-D images form a mind-bending fun house that requires second looks – and gives rise to second thoughts.

400.madam im adam Another, "Madam I'm Adam" takes the cake for its fusion of absurdity, precision and painstaking labor. The seemingly simple diptych shows Wegman sitting at a table and covering his face with his hand.

Each of the two images appears to be identical. But a couple of subtle clues alert viewers to the elaborate machinations the artist went through to print the images, one in the normal manner and the other with the negative flipped over. Turning himself into a human negative, he reversed everything left for right, right for left, in the image on the right, including the position of his arms, the part in his hair, the light source and his wristwatch.

The piece's pleasures reside in the sheer nuttiness of the endeavor, which also evokes the Zen sense that every moment is different, and that experiencing such differences makes life fuller and richer.

All of Wegman's works from the 1970s have the presence and directness of entries in an encyclopedia of camera tricks from the pre-digital age, when photographs were made from negatives and had to be developed in darkrooms.

His six recent pieces are Polaroids and digital prints, neither of which requires darkroom processing. Nevertheless, they eschew computer manipulation, preferring such simple tricks as multiple exposures, re-photographed imagery and homemade props.

This adds a poignant, time-capsule quality to Wegman's exhibition, which will not make sense when people no longer know about film, negatives and darkroom processing. We're not there yet and it's a treat to see someone having so much smart fun with such old-fashioned technology.

– David Pagel

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101, (323) 933-9911, through April 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Untitled, 1973, (top) and "Madam I'm Adam," 1970. Courtesy of the artist and Marc Selwyn Fine Art.