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Animal Magnetism

Lawndale fashions an exhibition of work by artists about their pets

Darryl Lauster is a pug owner, God help him. Actually, God help pugs, those tragically inbred animals with faces smashed beyond recognition and a congenital inability to breathe. Admittedly, as the owner of a basset hound, I have no room to talk. With a set of design flaws too numerous to mention and a similarly acquired appeal, bassets are lugubrious, narcoleptic, gluttonous and hold the title of tenth dumbest out of 150 breeds. Why certain people pick certain pets is one of the great mysteries of contemporary life. Lauster is curator of Lawndale Art Center's "Petcentric," an exhibition of work by artists about their pets, and in a stroke of blatant nepotism, he has placed the pug mug of Cheech Lauster on the cover of the exhibition brochure.

The exhibition's opening was attended by a variety of people and their pets, primarily dogs, I suppose because fish and snakes are less social. Pets and owners wandered around the exhibition, chatting with and sniffing each other, only occasionally fighting. I won't reveal who did what to whom, but let's just say the aforementioned behavior spanned species lines.

Several dogs had to be restrained from diving into Michael Golden's Home Alone (2002). Three rolls of toilet paper hang on the wall with huge unrolled piles of tissue massed below, a succinct icon of unsupervised pet fun. Shamelessly pandering to the dog crowd, Devin Borden hung his photographs of food, a big cat head and flowers at canine height. He added an additional secret weapon to guarantee an audience: He tucked cat food behind the food image, the horrific doggy snack of cat shit behind the staring feline and dog piss-scented grass clippings behind the lawn shot. The crowd went wild.

Remember those hideous decoupage dogs from the '70s, the plaster ones covered in patchwork fabric? Carter Ernst has made a gargantuan version of that cheesy craft object in American Icon 2 (Kota) (2002). Its Scottie-dog-like shape is covered in various annoying florals. In her bio, Ernst reveals that she and her family's dog shared the same name until her grandmother declared, "it was indecent to have a child and a dog answering to the same name." The Great Dane was rechristened Big Boy.

Alex Irvine's Easter Crap (for Martha) (2002) consists of two sparkly rabbit figurines crafted from "plastic ready-mades, fecoptropes [read: bunny shit] and paint." Tiny bunny turds have been carefully glued to bunny forms and sprayed with glitter paint in pastel Easter colors. Who knew excrement could be so decorative? It's way cuter than Chris Ofili's elephant-dung Madonna from the scandalous "Sensation" show, the only other poop art that immediately comes to mind.

In the ultimate canine fantasy, Kelly Pike has melded two doggy favorites, shoes and smoked pig-ear treats. Her elegantly gross pumps, Mepkin Abbey Mules from the Spring 2002 Harley Ware Collection, have nasty, fleshy pig ears glue-gunned in place of shoe leather to create a ridiculously witty piece. (The shoe construction process was not without incident; apparently the pig ears had to be boiled to become malleable, causing her house to smell like a rendering plant, driving her dog into a frenzy of salivation.)

Jennifer Herzberg's rectangle of paper hangs on an opposite wall and at first seems to be a drawing covered with tiny delicate marks. Up close, you realize the random lines are accumulated cat hair sealed under rows of Scotch tape. It's self-explanatorily titled Three's Enough (2002).

From white T-shirt cotton, Myra Sontheimer has created large and small stuffed cats so plump and stubby-legged they look like obese guinea pigs. Big Olive(2002) and Various Olives (2001) are wonderfully crudely stitched together; the needlework has a Frankenstein-like quality to it, albeit in white thread. Stuffed with seeds for bean-bag effect, the various Olives are plopped on pedestals, sprawling face down or on their back with minute legs stuck in the air.

In Dog TV(2002), Jeff Shore goofily explores the dog psyche. A video camera scans over what appears to be the topography of an alien planet, but is actually the surface of a red rubber chew toy stuck with stray dog hairs. An otherworldly electronica soundtrack accompanies the journey. In another scene, the camera pans quickly over the ground to a snappy beat, jerkily seeking the toy in a frantic doggy quest. A big white fluffy dog is shown watching out of a window into the front yard, his nose repeatedly smearing the glass. You sense the tension as he waits for the moment something will move into his field of vision and he can enter into a barking frenzy. In a fantasy sequence, a stack of pale processed cheese slices is carefully crafted into a convincing bunny likeness -- Stik, the canine star of the video, shares his home with four rabbits.

"Petcentric" is a clever idea for a show with an egalitarian attitude that drew work from people who consider themselves artists and those who choose not to. Most of the pieces were made specifically for the show, and while some of it is uneven, the success is irrespective of artist/nonartist status. There is something utopian about "Petcentric." It has a Rodney King "Why can't we all just get along?" feeling to it -- dog people, cat people, bird people, ferret people, coming together as simply pet people. Even breed prejudices can be overcome; Cheech really is kinda cute…

 
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