want to be your dog
“Want To Be Your Dog” is the title of Christopher Wool’s Word-painting, which immediately springs to our minds when we talk about a “wanna do” in curating an exhibition. The double layered meaning of Wool’s painted words done in 1992 are strikingly true these days. The work has inspired us since long to curate a show featuring dogs in art.
Dogs are depicted in early European artworks as well as in contemporary art all over the world. They provide in-house models and muses for artists. Dogs have long been portrayed in natural history anthologies, that focused on artistic renderings rather than scientific studies of specimens. While domesticated animals were occasionally treated as the subject of a work, often these animals supported the artist’s larger iconographic, compositional or narrative goals. At their most basic level, these pets were pictured as faithful and loving companions, aiding survival or sports.
Popular literature like myths and fables featured dogs too, often conveying a moralizing message through talking “beasts” that mimicked human actions. Artists also commonly used dogs as metaphors in religious and allegorical scenes. Typically, dogs symbolized loyalty. Yet due to the layering of iconographic meaning, over many centuries, we find dogs variously represented as friend, foe, sacred or sinful, regal or scrappy. It was for the artist to choose from a range of meanings what applied to the breed they portrayed.
It occurred to us that since 2010 we have had the ambition of curating a show with art works that prominently feature dogs. This ambition of curating a “Want to be Your Dog” exhibition came to mind again when we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art where we eyed a pretty Schnauzer wearing a red sweater bearing the initials FS. The initials stand for Florine Stettheimer. Actually, in our mind these initials resembled a dollar sign. This charming dog sits in the left hand corner of a painting called “Spring Sale at Bendel’s”. Florine Stettheimer’s oil dates from 1921 and she interprets a department store sale as a wild landscape with fashionable shoppers competing for bargains. Also that December in 2015, we visited the full scale survey of Archibald Motley in the Whitney museum of American art in New York. Archibald Motley was a jazz aged modernist, a radical interpreter of modern culture. He painted several types of dogs. A boxer in the painting “Barbecue” 1960, a red heeled lady walking a poodle in “Gettin Religion” from 1948 and a dachshund in “The Liar” dated from 1936.
Now the dachshund is a type of breed that over the years has been favored by many artists. Andy Warhol owned one, Picasso didn’t own one but he often painted Lump, the dachshund of one of his friends. And David Hockney of course owned several. He painted intimate and enticing portraits of his dachshunds Stanley and Boogy (1994). The series demonstrate the strong bond and connection between the owner and his dogs. Actually Jeff Koons’s dogs has been lauded as the most beloved of all contemporary sculptural forms. The Uber sized pink variation graced the rooftop of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venice’s Grand Canal, and Palais Versailles outside Paris. Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), is one of the most expensive artworks by a living artist ever to sell at auction. The oversized stainless steel pup by Jeff Koons sold for an astronomical 58.4 million dollars. To mind also comes the group of white fiberglass dogs with big floppy ears set up on wooden stilts: “Dogs From Your Childhood,” produced by Yoshitomo Nara in 1999. He is one of the leading artists of Japan’s influential Neo Pop movement and is best known for his depictions of simultaneously cute and devilish children and animals. Nirmal Hurry’s work, an artist from Mauritius, is also a cycle of dogs “a love story since 1982” (2013). He exhibited this work at the Biennale of Venice 2015 at the Mauritius Pavillion. In the name of convenience and egotism, masquerading as altruism, we allow the perpetuation of a series of matings and separations, immoral couplings that are self-serving and benefit only the parasites of the system. The one thing that stands out to me is that this is not a sculpture of fun loving dogs playing in the park, but a metaphor. These dogs are interested in something else, and the circle creates the point of ongoing dissatisfaction or desires not being fulfilled. You cannot get what you want. We also recall the stray dogs of Simon Schrikker painted in a series called “The Beast in Paint” showing a battle between form and content, between painted matter and painted image. Simon Schrikker’s subjects have an apparent simplicity: he paints stray dogs that seem to struggle to emerge from the paint. The medium is part of the message here. William Wegman is incredibly famous because of the Weimaraners he photographs.
In video art we vividly remember Francis Alys, El Gringo (2003), a video, where one experiences the discomfort of being an outsider when the camera is confronted by a pack of snarling dogs. In the same category of experiencing discomfort: Ruben Bellinkcx’s 16 mm film in three projections, “The Musical Chair”. Where a chair is being attacked by three dogs who compete with each other to gain possession of it. Eventually, the fight results in the destruction of the chair. Each of the three parts provides a specific view of this event. Retired rescue dogs feature in Charlotte Dumas’s work. She is noted for her touching portraits of animals, especially dogs. ’Retrieved’ depicts a series of specially trained dogs that searched the rubble for life. This series of photographs mark not only the anniversary of the September 2001 attacks, but are also a recognition for some of the first responders and their dogs.
As said previously, what inspired us most to curate a show like this are Christopher Wool’s lines in big block lettering in a painting that reads, “Want/To Be/Your Dog”. That was Christopher Wool’s contribution to art in 1992. “Want to be your Dog” makes an interesting show taking us on a journey from low to high culture, from protection to company, and from sociable benefit to economic crises. A twist or two, as the subject in many ways questions the position artists take up in the world today. In this case, it most probably stays an ambition and at least one that we have written down as “wanna do” at VanGervenVanRijnberk.
Images by ©vangervenvanrijnberk