SHARI HATT: DOGS

by Nelson Henricks, 2003
www.nelsonhenricks.com

Try to think like a dog. Unfocus your eyes and stare off into space. Open your mouth. Stick your tongue out and start panting. Keep your mouth open. At intervals, quickly lick your lips, making your tongue go in a crazy circular motion. Resume panting.

After awhile, try to scratch your armpit with your teeth. Get in there! Shove your mouth into your underarm and begin gnawing vigorously. Now stop. Scratch yourself. Find an itchy place and begin pawing at it with your arm. Make the scratching motion as simple as possible, and slowly accelerate in speed before dropping off abruptly. Now stare off into space and resume panting.

My two-year old niece went through a phase when all she said was “No” or “Mine”. When I hear dogs bark, I imagine this is what they are saying to each other.

Dog-lovers are a pathetic lot. They cram all of their affection into an animal, affection that should be directed towards another human being: a child, a spouse, a lover. Dogs are easier to love than humans. They aren’t as complicated and infuriating. You love them and they love you back, unconditionally.

Elsewhere on earth, dogs aren’t accorded the same reverence they are here. They are eaten and beaten, made to work or wander the streets like beggars. Elsewhere on earth, people live with all kinds of animals. They keep sheep, goats, chickens or pigs. They travel by horse, donkey, or camel. Periodically, an animal will be selected, killed, and eaten. Perhaps it is because we are so out of touch with animals on a day to day basis — we don’t raise what we eat, our cars can’t kick or bite us — that dogs occupy such a disproportionate amount of space in western society.

I tell my friends in Africa how we treat dogs here in Canada. “Do you know that, in Canada, people follow their dogs around and pick up their poop? That there are special cemeteries for animals? That there are hair salons and day cares for animals? Even stores where you can only buy things for dogs?” Their eyes go wide. They furrow their brows. They shake their heads in disbelief with mouths open, aghast. “That’s crazy.”

I am a dog lover, or at least, I was. Before allergies got in the way and made me flee anything furry. Before this, I was a dog lover. I had a special relationship with a dog. Let’s call him B.

I was with B. from age of five to 17. He was a small, scrappy mutt. A light brown, shorthaired dog that my family referred to generically as “a terrier”. Once I remember listening to Christine McVie’s “Songbird” from the Fleetwood Mac album “Rumours”. I played the record, holding B. in my arms on the living room couch and cried my eyes out, thinking about how someday he would die. I was about 14 or 15 at the time. I don’t think I was stoned.

***

I am looking at a photo of “Ice”, one of the subjects of Shari Hatt’s “Dogs” (1999). That we consider a dog a “subject” is perhaps the most surprising thing about this and the 51 accompanying works in the series. Not that dogs can be subject matter. That’s been done before. Rather, these dogs seem privileged with subjectivity. They have a personality, a self, individuality, an inner life. “Ice”, framed against green silky background, looks slightly world weary. Not exactly blasé, not exactly cynical. There is something questioning and resigned in his look. I imagine “Ice” as a heavy set, 50-something car salesman. He comes home from a day at the lot and sighs heavily. His customers irritate him, but he’s been around the block too many times to care. Or perhaps “Ice” is a loading dock worker, a tired man stopped off at the bar on his way home from work. Something about his look says, “Phew! That was some day.”

The images in “Dogs” (especially those in the 1999 “green” series) invite this kind of projection. When I see “Chip”, I think of some old gentleman from an 18th century painting, the kind of dull-witted aristocrat that Ingres or Goya might paint with subtly infused irony. Or the portrait of George Washington featured the American one dollar bill: sullen, taciturn and wise. “Dusty” is a perky blonde who works at a tanning centre or health club. She still looks young enough, but has just passed the cusp into middle age. This manifests itself as an aura of nervous worry. Or perhaps she is a waitress at a Las Vegas cocktail bar. She’s a Virgo, listens to Elvis, and smokes only one cigarette per day (with a glass of milk, before going to bed).

From where do these characteristics, these personalities, emerge? Are they something innate, contained within the subjects? Or are they something we project into them? To a certain extent, Hatt’s “Dogs” are a series of empty vessels that we pour traits into. Not completely, but somewhat. These aren’t portraits in the conventional sense of the word. Rather, they are mirrors, beaming back to us our idea of the other. Much of this depends on how we, as humans, a programmed to read faces on an involuntary, immediate and unconscious level.

“The face is not an envelope exterior to the person who speaks, thinks, or feels. The form of the signifier in language, even in units, would remain indeterminate if the potential listener did not use the face of the speaker to guide his or her choices (“Hey, he seems angry…”; “He couldn’t say it…”; “You see my face when I’m talking to you…”; “look at me carefully…”). A child, woman, mother, man, father, teacher, police officer, does not speak a general language but one whose signifying traits are indexed to specific faciality traits. Faces are not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability; delimit a field that neutralises in advance any expressions or connections unamenable to the appropriate significations. Similarly, the form of subjectivity, whether consciousness or passion, would remain absolutely empty if faces did not form the loci of resonance that select the sensed or mental reality and make it conform in advance to a dominant reality. (…) The face constructs the wall that the signifier needs in order to bounce off of; it constitutes the wall of the signifier, the frame or screen. The face digs the hole that subjectification needs in order to break through; it constitutes the black hole of subjectivity…” (1)

Like Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”, which operated as “…airports for the lights, shadows and particles” (2), Hatt’s photos are landing fields for psychological reactions and reflections: Rorschack tests in canine form. This exchange between the viewer and the image operates with all portraits, but foregrounded here because the subjects are not human.

Hatt seduces us with our love of animals, our love of dogs in particular. We love dogs because, of all the animals, dogs are the only ones that love us back. Cats are indifferent, aloof, independent, and, let’s face it, evil. That’s their charm. I ask you: would any self-respecting witch or warlock own a dog? Dogs are too obsequious, fawning, and needy: the classic goody two shoes. Lassie saving Jimmy from the well. Old Yeller before he went bonkers. Would a cat drag you from a collapsed building?

That first caveman, who, with scraps of bone and fat lured a wary hound to his fireside, earned unconditional love: a faithful friend who would protect him and his clan for life. In fifty years, when a third of the plant and animal species on this planet have been wiped out by human arrogance and greed, dogs will persist. Not through cunning, but through a kind of bizarre Darwinism where those who love best, live longest. (3)

Hatt seduces us with our love of dogs. Once lured into the trap we are suspended in a hall of mirrors, where subject and object engage in a fluttering exchange of real and imagined characteristics. This is part of what provides these works with their extraordinary magnetism. The second chapter of the series, “Black Dogs (Series One)” (2001-2002) amplifies this effect: all black dogs are photographed on black backgrounds. Moving into a realm that is more intensely formal paradoxically allows Hatt to plumb darker psychological depths.

On a formal level, the black photos recall the work of Dutch portrait painters such as Rembrandt or Franz Hals. The subject is pitted against black and limitless void, from which he or she is difficult to disentangle. From here it is only a small step to high modernism. Malevich’s “White on White” gives way to Rauschenberg’s aforementioned “White Paintings”, which were accompanied by a reciprocal series of all-black paintings. Ad Reinhardt’s apparently monochromatic black paintings revealed, upon extended scrutiny, a series of subtle gradations of colour (nine hard-edged squares arranged in a three by three grid). On some level, Hatt wants to draw us into the act of intense scrutiny demanded by the works of artists such as Reinhardt (indeed, the black dog photos are arranged in a grid reminiscent Reinhardt’s tic-tac-toe format).

Seductive subjects and formal elegance first draw us into “Black Dogs”. The effect here, however, is very different from the earlier “green” series. Humour is displaced completely. The subjects become mysterious, or at times, menacing. To a certain extent, our reactions are coded within pre-established cultural associations bound to blackness: fear of the dark, nocturnal stillness, mourning, absence, calm and melancholy. The sense of space in these works is vertiginous, bordering on overwhelming; something akin to looking down a dark well, or staring up into a starry sky. Eyes, teeth and swatches of hair punch through the depths, arresting us with their alarming closeness in the dark and endless night. The expanded scale of these works brings forth a heightened sense of confrontation between the animal mystery and the human world.

***

William Wegman is frequently name-checked when discussing Hatt’s work. Though this is a valid comparison on some level — both explore anthropomorphism through strategically deployed humour — I find Hatt’s approach more, for lack of a better word, humane. Wegman is all about dressing animals up as people, and there is something vaguely humiliating about this. His dogs always fail to be human; the laughs come at their expense. Hatt’s approach levels the playing field. Using the tropes of conventional photographic portraiture, the same kinds of codes used to represent corporate CEOs, actors or models, Hatt invests value into the dogs as subject. They are not ridiculed, but rather, put on the same level as us.

In his 1986 work, “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like”, Bill Viola contemplated similar questions. As artist-in residence at the San Diego Zoo, Viola explored the relationship between human and animal consciousness, specifically through the gaze. When we see our own image reflected in the pupil of an animal’s eye, we understand something about the nature of consciousness; the ground zero of awareness that humans and animals share.

“As the gateway to the soul, the pupil of the eye has long been a powerful symbolic image and evocative physical object in the search for knowledge of the self. The colour of the pupil is black. It is on this black that you see your own self-image when you try to look closely into your own eye, or into the eye of another…the largeness of your own image preventing you an unobstructed view within. (…) It is through this black that we confront the gaze of an animal, partly with fear, with curiosity, with familiarity, with mystery. We see ourselves in its eyes while sensing the irreconcilable otherness of an intelligence ordered around a world we can share in body but not in mind.” (4)

Hatt’s effectively removes the stops and checks that elevate us above animals, while simultaneously revealing our irretractable difference. But her work also levels other value systems as well.

Shari Hatt is a self-described lover of kitsch. Previous projects have explored the pop culture figures such as Liberace and Elvis Presley, filtering them through the lens of high art. Hatt’s project is to a certain extent about blurring any easy distinctions between high and low culture. We can invoke Rembrandt, Reinhardt and Rauschenberg when discussing “Dogs”, but we could just as easily speak of black velvet painting, high school yearbooks, department store studio portraits or advertising images. These sources inspire Hatt equally. Her work, however, neither patronises the working class nor skewers the art world. Rather, she seeks to heal a split between the two. Why are some forms of expression inherently more valuable than others? How is value produced? At what point do high and low culture meet? Hatt’s work engages these questions with vigour.

The location of kitsch within Hatt’s practice is interesting to examine. In the Liberace and Elvis series, the fascination is as much with glitter and excess as it is with class mobility. Why do men from working-class backgrounds choose rhinestones and sequins as expressions of wealth and success? I don’t think Hatt believes that either Liberace or Elvis are kitsch. Rather, she is conscious of the process of translation: how moving something from one social context to another can transform culture into kitsch, and vice versa.

In previous works, kitsch was the object of Shari Hatt’s investigations. By exploring tacky tinselled trash, Hatt was able to show us that taste is simply a matter of context. But what about “Dogs”? There is nothing inherently vulgar or tawdry about dogs as subject matter: concerns with pedigrees and breeding in the canine world eerily mimic human class structure. Where kitsch enters here is in the act of photographing itself. Dogs aren’t kitsch, but taking photos of dogs, somehow, is. Kitsch here passes from noun to verb: from being to doing.

Hatt casts herself as a dog photographer, sabotaging her privileged role as artist. She does this in a forceful manner. Several incarnations of the exhibition have been accompanied by a working “canine portrait studio”. Hatt actively solicits subjects from the local community and photograph them on-site. Owners get a copy of the resulting image, which might also be exhibited in future versions of the show. For example, during the Southern Alberta Art Gallery exhibition, Hatt photographed subjects for “Black Dogs: Series Two” (2001-2003): black adult dogs with brown and tan faces markings in the Doberman/Rottweiler category. On this level, the “Dogs” project becomes a performance piece: a social intervention in which the entire activity of taking pictures (especially portrait pictures) is questioned. Hatt challenges cosy assumptions we have about the relationship between value and culture, and the production of the same.

From the dog portrait studio, to her insistence that dogs attend the openings of her shows, to the hilarious “17 Reasons People Should Take Pictures of Dogs” (which I hope is featured elsewhere in this document), Hatt creates an ambience of democratic openness throughout the exhibition. At the bottom line, she insists that art should be accessible to all, regardless of their class, education or species. In the process, one doesn’t necessarily have to compromise on intelligence or aesthetics. Nor does one have to sacrifice fun to rigour.

“The whole process of doing the dog portraits is absurd and hellish beyond anything I’ve ever done, but ultimately, it’s always a lot of fun because I get to play with the models. The models always want to play. I always liked dogs but now I LOVE dogs.” (5)

Does a dog have a face? The answer, it would seem, is yes. But what does it mean when we agree to this proposition? Once we move into this space — the space in front of a Shari Hatt photo — we become ensnared in a double bind: our intense empathy for and love of dogs coupled with the alienation felt when confronted by the animal other. Through thoughtful manipulation of cultural codes, Hatt is able to bring into question not only the relationship between people and their pets, but also the gulf between high and low culture. Through a deft interweaving of art and kitsch, Hatt insists that value, like love, is constant and immutable, no matter what the scruffy, fluffy, drooling object of our affection might be.

***

We were on a camping trip when B. died. Cause of death: heart attack. He was 12 and had lived a good life. We buried him in the forest under a tree. On the way home, my parents stopped off in town for a drink at the bar. My brother and I stayed in the van and drank pop. Driving out of town that evening, a RCMP officer pulled over my grieving and inebriated parents. With his flashlight he peered through the drivers window. He could see the kids sniffling and crying in the back of the van. Mom was crying in the passenger’s seat, my father was crying at the wheel. He asked us what happened. “Our dog died today”, my mother gulped, between sobs. He waved us on, and never gave us a ticket, telling us instead to head straight home.

I don’t think a month has gone by that I don’t dream about B. at least once. His small, warm body is curled up at the foot of the bed, and I have to reposition my legs to make space for him. Or more vivid dreams where I find him in my apartment, sleeping in his basket. I am always surprised to see B. is still alive. He wakes up and walks over to me slowly, tail wagging. He is ancient. I grab his smiley face and rub his ears. It’s as if I had forgot about him, but he was always there. “I’ve got to take you for a walk”, I say, and then we head for the door.

***

(1) From “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia” by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. pp. 167-168.
(2) From “Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage”, John Cage, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1973. p. 102.
(3) Or as General Idea’s AA Bronson once said, speaking of effete poodles while decked out in Day-Glo poodle drag: “Those that live to please must please to live.” From the video “Shut the Fuck Up” (1985).
(4) From “Bill Viola: Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House”, Bill Viola, London: Thames and Hudson/Anthony D’Offay Gallery, 1998. p. 143.
(5) Correspondence with the artist, Spring, 2003

***

Nelson Henricks is an artist, curator and writer based in Montreal, Quebec.