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Pet Project

Maestro: Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog.
Courtesy of MFAH

There are cat people, and there are dog people. Rarely, it seems, do the twain meet. Being equally enamored with both cats and dogs is probably about as common as being ambidextrous. But both species have been a part of human lives -- and art -- for thousands of years. Two exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, "Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today" and "The Cat's Meow," seek to court each camp.

With their cornball titles, the shows are obviously designed as crowd-pleasers, and the MFAH's Web site is remarkably candid on the subject. It concedes that "Best in Show" is "unapologetically designed to entertain and divert" but asserts, "The exhibition at the same time seeks to reveal both the high artistic standards the subject has sustained and how this recurrent theme functions in the history of art."

If the exhibitions' respective sizes are indicative of species popularity, dogs win hands down. There are around 25 works in the cat show but three times as many in the dog show. "Best in Show" is the weightier endeavor, organized by the MFAH and the Bruce Museum of Arts & Science of Greenwich, Connecticut, with the legendary art historian -- and dog lover -- Robert Rosenblum as principal author of the exhibition catalog.

In contrast, "The Cat's Meow" is a one-room, in-house affair. One of the cat show's standouts is a video by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. In it, a cat, with what looks like a dead flea on its head, laps milk from a saucer. That's all that happens. But the cat is so focused that it's kind of mesmerizing. You also realize that lapping is a pretty inefficient way to take in liquid.

The cat fans visiting the exhibition (I'm not one of them) cooed at the feline like it was a newborn baby. A kitty and a saucer of milk are a ridiculously banal and saccharine combination, but that's Fischli and Weiss's point; amusing takes on the ordinary are their stock in trade. The video was originally created for the massive Panavision Astrovision screen that overlooks Times Square. Imagining the mundane footage playing in such a frenetic context makes it perfectly absurd and absurdly perfect.

How you read Roger Ballen's photograph Portrait of a Sleeping Girl (2000) really depends on how you feel about cats. A young girl sleeps with a blanket tightly wrapped around her. A black cat with a patch of white is curled up on her back. I think he looks like he's going to suck her soul out while she sleeps, but cat lovers may have a more sentimental take on the image.

And how you feel about dogs will definitely affect how you respond to "Best in Show." It has more than its share of paintings whose primary selling point is that they depict dogs.

The show includes some lesser works by well-known names like Gustave Courbet. Making The Greyhounds of the Comte de Choiseul (1866), the famous realist painter sold out to the aristocracy: The commissioned portrait shows the Comte's dogs elegantly posed in a manner that no doubt suited the Comte's tastes. It seems Courbet tried to redeem him- self by adding a little realist scruffiness to their coats.

"Best in Show" also has some works that are interesting no matter what your pet persuasion. Anyone who sat through an introductory art history class will remember Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla's painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912). Having seen it so often in reproduction, it's wonderful to see it in person -- and the real thing is much better. It's fascinating to see how Balla evoked the frantic pace of the dog's cycling feet and the ground whizzing by. Futurism had its nihilistic aspects with its "man over nature" agenda, but seeing such an evocative portrait of a goofy little dog shows that even Balla wasn't immune to canine charms.

Meanwhile, English painter Philip Reinagle's Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog (1805) presents a precursor to the dogs-playing-poker genre. A spaniel sits at the piano with the dignity of a maestro. Apparently, the entertainment value of dogs engaged in human activities spans the centuries.

With the 21st-century glut of expensive and ridiculous dog accessories, it may seem like we have reached the high-water mark for humanity's dog obsession. Au contraire, just look at the 18th-century terra-cotta sculpture Model for a Mausoleum for Ninette (1780-85) by the French artist Clodion. It was created at the behest of Pierre-Jacques-Onsyme Bergeret de Grandcourt, an obscenely wealthy financier -- think 18th-century hedge fund manager -- who wanted a suitable tomb for his bichon frise. The dead Ninette is shown in eternal repose on a velvet cushion atop the mausoleum, each rococo curl of her fur lovingly modeled. Behind her is an urn so lavishly draped with fabric that it harkens back to the baroque excess of Bernini. And the excess continues with two lap dogs balanced on their hind legs, posing like caryatids to support the plinth bearing Ninette. In his catalog essay, Rosenblum points out that this was just the kind of extravagance that helped spark the French Revolution.

Duane Hanson has his own postmortem canine art, a slightly macabre labor of love. Hanson is the artist famous for his ultra-lifelike sculptures of Americans -- fat tourists, used car dealers, janitors, etc. Beagle in a Basket (1981) is a "posthumous portrait" of his dead dog Petra. (Hanson made his sculptures by casting the sitters, so a dog would pretty much have had to be dead to sit still through the process.) Hanson has painted the beagle's fur with loving realism. In keeping with the artist's aesthetic, the dog is shown curled up in a cheap wicker basket on a red shag carpet sample.

One wonders why an exhibition as large as "Best in Show" didn't span a broader time period and more cultures. Aside from a couple of American works, it's a completely Eurocentric affair, even though dog and man have been linked together for millennia all over the world. Numerous examples from other cultures and time periods come to mind -- that "Cave Canem" (Beware of Dog) mosaic from Pompeii, dog art from Egyptian tombs, Chinese Temple Dogs, ancient Colima pottery dogs from Mesoamerica... Even the small-scale cat show features work from Asia. I'll concede that sometimes people just want to look at kitties and puppies, but why not have a broader and more interesting assortment?


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