by Johanna Mizgala, 2002
The Station Gallery, Whitby, Ontario
Shari Hatt’s photographic series entitled Dogs (1999) consists of 51 16 x 16 inch colour photographs, installed at eye-level along the walls of the gallery. Each portrait is shot against a jewel green background — all close-up frontal views with the animal’s eyes directly engaged. The heads are all the same size in the frame, regardless of the actual size of each dog, which in itself is disconcerting, as rarely do we examine dogs in this manner, completely divorced from their bodies. Furthermore, while eye contact between humans is one of the most elementary forms of communication next to touch, staring squarely into the eyes of a dog is an act of hostility, signifying dominance. In the portraits, the dogs stare placidly back at the viewer. But this isn’t really eye contact — the photograph is a flat surface depicting this furry face as an object of contemplation. In this manner, the portraits hover somewhere between the alien and the familiar, and the dogs seem all the more distinct from humans by virtue of being posed in a setting reserved for humans — akin to a mug-shot, a driver’s license photo, a yearbook photo, or an actor’s head-shot.
The artist’s photographs expose the dogs as dogs — not dressed as humans or as human stand-ins, but instead as themselves devoid of artifice. Moreover, her portraits are marked by the absence of the elements found in traditional portraiture, such objects to elucidate the sitter’s social position, except for the occasional hint of collar or turtleneck sweater. The conventions of portraiture are overpowering, and the viewer cannot help but try to read the faces of the dogs. In these contradictory impulses, Shari sets a trap of codification, an almost unconscious desire to type and classify the animals buried in the heart of this simple question: “Just what am I looking at?” The viewer ascribes personalities to each of the animals, which rest somewhere between known characteristics of the breeds and the pleasure of imagination. There’s no right or wrong way to read the animal, unless of course you know the dog in question. And even then, how well can you really know your dog? Do they keep some of themselves back, the way people do? Do they strive to put their best paw forward, and occasionally cringe at being asked to shake for the hundredth time?
Hatt’s portraits share characteristics of pin-up posters and by extension fascination with celebrity, a theme that runs through a number of her photographic series, such as The All Elvis Honky, Honky Burnin’ Love Museum (1990) — an ongoing multi-media exhibition including anything and everything related to the King of Rock and Roll, and the more recent Liberace’s Closet (2001) — “portraits” of the costumes of Liberace taken at the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. The cult of fame relies on a belief that someone can be known intimately, even when there has no real interaction. Hatt’s manipulation of the physical size of her dog subjects taps into feelings of disappointment or surprise in discovering that a movie star is shorter than expected, and by extension that someone’s voice doesn’t quite “fit” their body.
With the new series of black dogs on black backgrounds, Hatt deals more with the sensuality of colour in photography than with notions of portraiture. These photographs speak to a love of surface and its details, of texture and tonality. They are almost painterly, with a sly wink towards the aesthetic of black velvet. There is something a bit sinister, a bit different about these dogs, existing much more as mythological creatures than as real dogs. There is a connection here to Shari’s series The Jubilation of Eve (1993) — portraits of a circle of Eves celebrating the mythical First Woman, described by Hatt as the true anarchist of the Garden of Eden. The common thread in Hatt’s work is the play between high and low art, public and private space, collecting, obsessions, kitsch, consumerism and secret desires.
Repetition and the grid are both tools for framing the act of looking. At first glance, it appears as though the same dog figures in a multiple portraits, but closer inspection reveals this to be false. Looking closely through their “sameness” reveals their differences. Purebred dogs are prized for conformity to certain accepted notions of the characteristics of their breed — it all rests on how they are supposed to look. The repetition of images for the purposes of comparison and ultimately value judgments is another important theme in Hatt’s work, most clearly evidenced in Breast Wishes (1996) — photographs of the torsos and breasts of 84 women installed in a multi-media exhibition. Whereas the exhibition explores the theme of contemporary culture’s fascination with women’s breasts and women’s subsequent ambivalent feelings about simultaneous power and powerlessness, Dogs explores notions of beauty and of taste from an altogether different angle.
Johanna Mizgala is a writer and curator Based in Ottawa, Ontario.