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Putting on the dog for the kids

Artist William Wegman, whose dogs dress for success, wowed a class of elementary school kids who may not know much about art, but they know what they like.

By TOM ZUCCO

Clarification (2/19/01): A story in Thursday's Floridian on William Wegman's visit to Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg mischaracterized the school's focus. It is an arts magnet school that exposes the students to artists and their work.

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Dugan Amadeus Mozart (“Dugie” for short), the 10-year-old pug owned by Perkins Elementary fourth-grade teacher Nancy Seaman, is dressed by the best, William Wegman.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The program began the way most do when the guest speaker is a world renowned artist and photographer. A teacher stood at the front of the stage, turned on the mike and faced the audience.

"Okay, listen up," he barked. "There will be no going to the bathroom. And no talking. Raise your hand if you have a question. I'll be moving around the room."

Would 200 fourth- and fifth-graders sit still for the dog photographer? Could he control them as well as he does a room full of Weimaraners?

For most of the children at Perkins Elementary School, this was their first encounter with any artist, let alone one as noted as William Wegman. He is one of the leading post-conceptualist artists to emerge from the minimalist movement.

Put another way, he's the guy who dresses dogs in evening gowns, wigs and funny hats, takes their picture, then puts the pictures in books, calendars, museums and galleries and watches the money roll in. (In his own dress, Wegman is more subtle. For Monday's presentation he wore a plain checked shirt, tan slacks and gray sneakers. No wig.)

A retrospective of his work has traveled to museums throughout Europe and the United States, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and his videos of dogs dressed as humans have appeared regularly on Sesame Street since 1989. He has also created videos for Saturday Night Live and Nickelodeon.

Some critics like him; some haven't figured him out. All children see are cute dogs dressed up as chefs, detectives, waiters or even Henry VIII.

Interesting concept. Put a dog's head on an adult human's body and then have it interact with other dog-headed adults.

No kid on the planet can resist that.

And so they oohed and aahed their way through the program as Wegman, whose exhibit at the University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum runs through March 17, gave a slide presentation and answered questions about what he does.

Do the dogs mind being dressed up?

"No, I know their limitations. I use four dogs, two males and two females. Female dogs are called bitches."

(Uncontrolled laughter and giggles)

"Try not to think about that any more."

What other art does he do?

"Painting and drawing. But I've never been asked to be on a talk show to bring my paintings."

When did you get started?

"About 1972. People weren't really sure whether it was art or not."

Why do you use Weimaraners?

"They have such expressive faces, and their coloring picks up the light in a very unusual way. And dogs let you stare at them. I don't feel comfortable staring at people and looking at them."

He is close to his subjects. He described Fay, one his older dogs, as having "luminescent yellow, ocher eyes.

"When I made her tall and gave her arms," he said, "it made her happy. And when I'm shooting her, she seems to be saying "How am I doing?' "

Wegman has carved out a niche, to be sure. By posing his dogs just so, he makes them into canine versions of Sam Spade and Carmen Miranda.

There are two kinds of pictures, Wegman said: "Those with dogs, and those without dogs."

Perhaps, but dog lovers -- and there are millions of them out there -- will adore anything even remotely related to the species. How else do you explain the painting of dogs playing poker that no flea market is without?

Wegman showed several short videos that aired on Sesame Street in which human actors placed their arms behind the dogs to give the appearance the dogs had human hands. In one sketch involving an auto mechanic, the mechanic says he'll throw in a fan belt for free. Then he throws the fan belt into the engine.

The kids ate it up, and when he was finished, they applauded. Twice.

"Some people get it and some people don't," Wegman said as he walked to his car. "Some people think it's just horrible. I strongly disagree, and I'll try to talk to that person and explain what I'm doing."

He said he knows he's doing something positive for the dogs.

But is he doing anything for art?

He smiled.

"I wouldn't be as presumptuous as to know if I'm doing anything for art."

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