SHARI HATT: DOGS

by Renee Baert, 2002
www.ottawaartgallery.ca

Over the past decade, the work of the photographer Shari Hatt has utilized photography to explore a range of subject matter in often playful yet consistently probing ways. The gregarious spirit of her work is interwoven with a vigorous approach to form and content that serves to unsettle norms and raise provocative questions.

In her earliest works, Hatt found unexpected pathways through which to focus on issues of gender and representation. The Jubilation of Eve (1993) disrupted art historical conventions of the female nude as “ideal” in a series of full frontal nude images of contemporary women, incorporating drapings of ivy and evidence of menstrual flow. Romantic stereotypes and identity politics were put into play in 52 men in my bedroom (1993); produced to the scale of a set of playing cards, the work displays photos of men individually photographed posing theatrically against a backdrop of a richly curtained portal in outfits signalling a range of masculine “types” from cowboy to biker to martyr to athlete to mechanic to bodybuilder. Breast Wishes (1996) was a multi-part installation that investigated the centrality of breasts to women’s personal and social experience vis a vis the restrictive cultural standards of female physical beauty. It included among its elements a grid of large scale colour photographs of the breasts of 84 women, audio recordings in which women narrated stories about their body image, and a pair of videotapes in which close-up sequences of individual women removing their bras is paired with that of the artist undressing the bandages that cover her wounds from breast reduction surgery.

In other work, Hatt has turned to sources derived from the storehouses of popular culture. These extend from the 1990-95 The All Elvis Honky, Honky Burnin’ Love Museum (a shrine/collection of artist-made original Elvis Presley artifacts, documents, effigies and memorabilia, including its subsection, the paired photograph series of My Mother Looks Like Elvis, and objects retailing the King as a look-alike Blue Boy, Jesus, Elizabeth Taylor – “King on a Hot Tin Roof” – and Virgin Mary) to her two ongoing series, Liberace’s Closet (colour photographs of the splendiferous clothing and furs of Mr. Showmanship, from the collection of the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas) and Celebrity (a colour photo series of celebrities which blurs the boundaries of artifice and real).

With the head-and-shoulders canine portraits that constitute the series Dogs, Shari Hatt has embarked on a large and ongoing series that takes “man’s best friend” as subject matter. In these works, Hatt inserts, in straightforward fashion, an unconventional subject into the conventions of photographic portraiture, a genre which – until the challenge set by postmodernism’s interrogation of the stability of “identity” – has laid special claim to revealing the inner life of its human subjects through its capture of gesture and expression.

Yet the dog is no stranger as a photographic subject: it accompanies the history of photography from its earliest inception. In Hatt’s work, however, the dog is not a companion or accoutrement, a stand-in for the human subject or a metaphor for human qualities, or even a pet (adjunct to its human owner): it is a subject in its own right. With her close attention to dogs in their specific, abundant uniqueness, Hatt’s work cuts across the anthropomorphism of much “pet” photography in art and amateur photography alike.

The classic head-and-shoulder close-up format of these photographs recalls not only formal portraiture but also a range of photographic genres which foreground the face as passport to identity: the driver’s licence photo, the police mug shot, the school yearbook, the photo booth picture and indeed the passport photo. But the scale, colour and ebullience of the photographs sets them apart from these more mundane usages. In their lushness, they draw nearer to celebrity photographs; yet, here too display a wider range of expressiveness. The extraordinary “presentness” of the animals affirms their vivid, indeed passionate, existence, yet it is we as viewers who can scarcely resist ascribing specific personalities to conform to the expressions of these pets otherwise unknown to us. Through portraiture, Hatt elevates these animals to the same status as the human subject, a move enhanced by her presentation of each face to the same frame-filling scale, regardless of the actual sizes of the dogs, and in a pose looking directly at the viewer. Yet the format of presentation de-individuates “identity” and renders it social through the use of the repetitive format, identical 16″ x 16″ framing and grid. As a whole, the series brings forward issues that circulate around portraiture as genre, taste, celebrity culture, the “high/low” divide and cultural mediation of the animal “other”.

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Renee Baert is a writer and curator based in Montreal, Quebec.