"When I was 9," he says, "I took this Saturday art class. My mom signed me up, and I didn't want to go, because it sounded like more school to me. The first thing they had me paint was a collie, and I felt like it was really easy, which I think is what I had been afraid of--that it would be hard. After my great success with the collie, I moved on to a basset hound, then a cocker spaniel, and the list went on. I just took up dogs again a couple of years ago, and returning to that subject seems very natural and comfortable to me."
On Saturday, July 3, Weber's pet portraits will be paraded across Hotel Congress' stage during the contest that kicks off the gala opening of Weber's "Show Dogs," which will hang in the Hotel Congress lobby through July 31. The reception begins at 7 p.m., and the Best in Show Contest--everyone in attendance can cast a vote--begins at 8 p.m. When it's over, one of Weber's paintings will be declared Top Dog.
Now 37, Weber studied at the Boston Museum School of Fine Art in the late '80s, then jetted off to Florence, Italy to study drawing.
"I wasn't really learning any Italian in this class all day," says Weber, "so I ended up dropping out and started studying stone carving at a private studio. I learned Italian much better after that."
He also picked up an affinity for fusing various styles of painting. Whether Weber's own style is described as "the classic features of Renaissance design with a German Expressionistic use of color" (thank you, Hotel Congress press release), or "forealism," defined by local philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Neil Weissmueller as "containing certain stylistic manners tied together by a theoretical statement that culminates with the creation of verisimilitude," one thing is certain--nowhere will your dog get more respect than in a Weber portrait.
"Historically," says Weber, "portraiture has served a function to nobilize, celebrate or just commemorate an individual. I try to take that approach, the way people have painted historically, and just use a dog face. I try to make them look sincere, genuine--like upstanding citizens. It's fun because they're dogs, so when you take something that has a serious history to it, and you replicate it with a pet--which has a lot of personality and is loved by somebody--and you do that to them, it transforms the form of portraiture. Another weird thing that people don't understand is that although I'm painting someone outside of myself, I'm also painting my reflection, because they're looking at me when I'm painting them--it's actually part of the way I see them. When I'm painting different dogs, I'm just painting another view that I see."
If Weber's theory sounds complex, the end paintings aren't--they're adamant about their own reality, but willing to hang back and be admired. Part of the reason I like Weber's dog portraits is because they remind me of my favorite painting--DaVinci's "Lady With an Ermine," which hangs in a small gallery in Krakow, Poland, and attacks its viewers with heartbreakingly perfect folds of fur and pale hands at rest. While not as hyper-real as that painting, Weber's have the same insistence, a quality described as "passive-aggressive" by people familiar with his work.
Weber, who has said he thinks "a good pet portrait can evoke the emotion of a silent movie star," adds, "Paintings are for me kind of like music. If you really like something, you listen to it over and over. I like music that doesn't jar or demand your attention; that's an example of the aesthetic I go for. I create an image that you get drawn into, but it's not screaming off the wall like a pop art picture. There are lots of different subtle layers and color vibration. The mix of composition and harmony of line continues to keep your eyes focused on the picture."
Want to have your own pet immortalized by Weber? Prices start at $750; show up at the Saturday event to find out more about it.
"I really like the idea of dog people coming out for the show and mixing with the art people," says Weber, "because I see the same people at art shows all the time. That's the really sweet thing about Tucson, is the familiarity in the art community--if you go to a show, you see all your friends. So I like the idea of the dog show people, who are also a really tight and insular group, converging on the same place and appreciating the same things."
People aren't the only ones who'll be showing up at Weber's opening--a few dogs have been invited as well, lured by promises of a foot-high buffet table. And though it's invite-only for dogs, all humans are welcome to attend the free event; call for more information.