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ON PHOTOGRAPHY

Fay and Ray, Via Wegman

December 27, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

NEW YORK — Some people in New York may feel smug about being the first to see pictures of William Wegman's new dog, in an exhibition at the Pace/MacGill Gallery on 57th Street. But Southern Californians got a preview of Fay last September in a show called "Animals" at Cal State Fullerton.

The sleek gray Weimaraner showed her stuff in a videotaped game of dog baseball. A born retriever, she and the other dogs trucked out to the country for the event succeeded in looking a lot more sane than the human beings who put them up to the silly game.

Fay, after all, is just a hapless beast who has become a starlet because she landed in the hands of Wegman, who turned another Weimaraner into an art-world darling. Man Ray, a dog named for the Surrealist painter and photographer, was the subject of Wegman's deadpan comic photographs and videotapes. As a result, he achieved more fame than most artists dare to desire. After his death of cancer, in 1982, the Village Voice ran Man Ray's picture on the cover and named him Man of the Year. He has also been a cover boy on Artforum, Camera Arts and a Sotheby's auction catalogue.

According to "Man's Best Friend," a book on Wegman and Man Ray, the 43-year-old artist never planned to exploit his pets or even to own one. His former wife's insistence on having a dog pushed him into buying Man Ray and because the puppy was always in the way, Wegman started using him as a model. Apparently Man Ray was so desperate for attention that he was willing to put up with almost any indignity to get it.

Fay wasn't so eager to go along with the program, but her pictures (on display through Jan. 16) suggest that she has settled into the tiresome business of being a celebrity with notable grace. At least she has the satisfaction of being seen as a beauty. In one of the "straight"-est shots in the show, Fay wears false eyelashes as she emulates Wegman's assistant, Andrea L. Beeman, seated next to her.

The other 20-by-24-inch color Polaroid prints portray Fay more as sculpture--a naturally gorgeous creation who poses on satiny backgrounds in ludicrous situations. She's a "Roller Rover" in high-topped skates, a "Baby Afghan" in gray wig and leg tuft, a "Faybled Mammal" in a fake leopard coat.

Essentially a conceptual artist who draws and paints along with working in video and taking photographs, Wegman has a keen interest in double meanings and a eye for the absurd. He seems to question art's power to transform not by actually transforming a dog but by convincing it to play absurd roles.

At the same time, Wegman can't resist making meticulously arranged, genuinely handsome photographs. In "Fay on Board," the dog sits Sphinx-like on an ironing board in a formally refined composition. In "Fay With Guitar," she lies back on a purple couch, melting into a still life.

Wegman is occasionally accused of abusing his pets by people who imagine that he beats them into submission, but his dogs always seem to have the last laugh. A weird sense of recognition filters through these pictures of dignified Weimaraners putting on the dog.

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