Modern art is go­ing to the dogs

The New York scene can be so jaded. One critic’s re­sponse: A three-day ex­hi­bi­tion for which a ca­nine con­nois­seur had the fi­nal say.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ART - BY PAT PADUA style@wash­post.com

new york — Shortly af­ter I met him, the cu­ra­tor of a group show open­ing in Man­hat­tan sat be­side me on the floor of a stu­dio in the Wil­liams­burg sec­tion of Brook­lyn. I reached over and pet­ted his fur, and he licked my hand. The cu­ra­tor’s name was Rocky. He’s a Mork­shire ter­rier with fi­nal ap­proval over the art­works in Dogumenta, which caters to the sen­si­bil­i­ties of a pre­vi­ously un­der­served de­mo­graphic: dogs.

“I met him on Mon­day, and on Tues­day I asked him to come home with me,” Rocky’s owner, art critic Jes­sica Daw­son (who free­lanced for The Wash­ing­ton Post for over a decade) says in ex­plain­ing her re­la­tion­ship with the cu­ra­tor. Daw­son found Rocky at a SoHo an­i­mal shel­ter not long af­ter she moved to New York sev­eral years ago, and as a pair, they have nav­i­gated the city’s at times over­whelm­ing gallery scene.

Named af­ter Doc­u­menta, a pres­ti­gious art ex­hi­bi­tion in its 14th edi­tion in Kas­sell, Ger­many, Dogumenta is the first U.S. ex­hi­bi­tion made specif­i­cally for dogs. (Bri­tish de­signer Do­minic Wil­cox de­vel­oped an ex­hi­bi­tion for dogs in Lon­don last year.) The con­cept might seem like the art world’s equiv­a­lent of the talk­ing-an­i­mal movie, but as that much­ma­ligned sub­genre (in one of its bet­ter re­cent ex­am­ples, Kevin Spacey voiced a grumpy cat in “Nine Lives”) can teach us some­thing about be­ing hu­man, so the en­thu­si­asm of a dog un­fet­tered by cur­rent art trends can teach us to let our aes­thetic hair down, so to speak.

“It’s easy to be­come over­whelmed and jaded,” Daw­son says of the New York art world. But Rocky doesn’t ap­proach art with hu­man pre­con­cep­tions. “Ev­ery time he sees a Jeff Koons,” Daw­son notes about the pop artist who in­stalled a 43-foot top­i­ary puppy at Rock­e­feller Cen­ter in 2000, “he doesn’t go [rolling eyes], ‘Jeff Koons again!’ like we do.”

In Fe­bru­ary, Daw­son de­liv­ered her the­sis, “Five Things My Dog Taught Me About Art” to a Bush­wick gallery au­di­ence con­sist­ing of artists, cu­ra­tors and crit­ics, and put out her first call for Dogumenta.

What has Rocky taught Daw­son about art? For one thing, fear­less­ness. “I love that he went with his gut,” Daw­son says.

Among the par­tic­i­pat­ing artists in Dogumenta is Gra­ham Cald­well, who ran a glass stu­dio in Hy­attsville, Md., and moved to New York al­most 10 years ago. How does it feel to be se­lected for a show like this?

“It’s dif­fer­ent!” Cald­well ap­proaches the chal­lenges of mak­ing art for dogs with an en­thu­si­asm that comes in part from his own ca­nine com­pan­ion, Min­now.

The 10- year-old dachs­hund pa pill on mix might bea harsher critic than Rocky. “Dogs can be bru­tally dis­mis­sive,” Cald­well says. “Es­pe­cially my dog — she makes th­ese snippy scoffy sounds if she’s not in­ter­ested in a per­son.” What about his art? For in­stance, what does Min­now think of “Glimpse Ma­chine,” Cald­well’s 2013 in­stal­la­tion con­sist­ing of a 10-by-20-foot clus­ter of rearview mir­rors?

“She doesn’t care,” Cald­well says. “It hurts a lit­tle.”

For Dogumenta, Cald­well took his art in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, cre­at­ing a set of child-size so­fas cov­ered en­tirely in grass sod. Al­though the con­cept is tai­lored for dogs, the per­isha­bil­ity of the ma­te­rial (this is, af­ter all, go­ing to be only a three-day show) speaks to Cald­well’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of ru­ined land­scapes. The piece also ad­dresses a dog’s per­cep­tion of a world made for hu­mans. “They use peo­ple stuff, but in a much dif­fer­ent way. They have a dif­fer­ent pur­pose for it,” Cald­well says.

They also have dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions. “All ca­nines see in blue and a yel­low-green,” Daw­son ex­plains. “That didn’t stop Rocky from lov­ing Dan Flavin’s light works. If a paint­ing is in a spec­trum that is un­know­able to him, he’ll be happy to dis­cuss sur­face and tex­ture.”

“We’re not even aware of what he’s smelling or per­ceiv­ing that we aren’t,” says Mica Scalin, who, along with Daw­son, is one of the show’s or­ga­niz­ers. This is a great op­por­tu­nity for artists to play with some of those dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions.”

Does Rocky ever have a bad re­ac­tion to art? Yes, and in one case, it in­di­cates the cu­ra­tor’s prud­ish streak. “He’s a lit­tle bit of a Vic­to­rian at heart,” Daw­son says of Rocky’s re­ac­tion to a work by Camille Hen­rot that pic­tured sev­eral dogs cop­u­lat­ing, “ahem, doggy style. And Rocky . . . can’t see the dogs en­gag­ing in their nat­u­ral be­hav­ior some­times. When he doesn’t like some­thing, he’s com­pletely will­ing to just walk out of the door.”

Some of the works in Dogumenta are meant to stim­u­late senses mu­se­ums rarely ad­dress, such as smell.

“One artist is mak­ing work out of kib­ble,” Scalin says. Dan Sher­wood is a trained pas­try chef who “uses food pre­sen­ta­tion in her work. She cre­ates th­ese sort of baroque feasts for wild an­i­mals. She’s a big dog lover, and this will be her first feast for dogs.”

Ex­am­in­ing a mock-up of work by Merav Ezer con­sist­ing of sil­hou­ettes of var­i­ous dogs, Rocky seems more in­ter­ested in the peo­ple around him. In their fi­nal form, the dog-shape forms will be fit­ted with mo­tion sen­sors that will bark when trig­gered.

“The non­dog or dog stand-in will then try to in­ter­act with the real dog, and we’ll see how much of a con­ver­sa­tion they will ac­tu­ally have,” Daw­son says. The mock-up sug­gests a be­nign ver­sion of ex­per­i­ments made by psy­chol­o­gist Harry Har­low, who ob­served the anx­i­ety of rhe­sus mon­keys sep­a­rated from their moth­ers and left with only a wire sur­ro­gate for com­fort. Yet, much as art can be a balm in un­cer­tain times, this show will ad­dress ca­nine anx­i­eties.

“One piece has a sound el­e­ment that coos gen­tle whis­per­ing, ‘Ooh, honey, it’s okay!’ ” Daw­son says.

Dogumenta is an ex­hi­bi­tion for dogs, but it en­cour­ages a ten­der­ness and open­ness some­times lack­ing in modern art. Dogumenta, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. Aug. 11-13, Brook­field Place, Wa­ter­front Plaza, 230 Ve­sey St., New York.

“When [Rocky] doesn’t like some­thing, he’s com­pletely will­ing to just walk out of the door.” Jes­sica Daw­son, art critic

JA­SON FALCHOOK

Art critic Jes­sica Daw­son and her dog Rocky con­sider a piece by Pe­dro Reyes at the Lis­son Gallery in New York. Rocky was the fi­nal ar­biter for this week­end’s Dogumenta ex­hi­bi­tion in Man­hat­tan.

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