Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Why are pets popular with artists?

Billie 2016 by Graeme Drendel  oil on canvas 51 x 40.5 cm  Collection of the artist, Melbourne
Billie 2016
by Graeme Drendel 
oil on canvas
51 x 40.5 cm 
Collection of the artist, Melbourne

We don't know much about art, but we know what we like: art featuring animals. Last month the National Portrait Gallery opened its companion animal-themed exhibition, the Popular Pet Show which we cannot wait to check out. The exhibition was curated by Dr Sarah Engledow, an historian, curator and animal lover. She took a moment to share some insights into the role of companion animals in art, as subjects, muses and just good company for artists working in isolation.

What inspired the pet portrait theme? 

I have curated several exhibitions that express simple pleasures and warm human experience. For Idle hours in 2009-2010 I selected paintings and drawings of people in quiet pursuits, reading, sewing, ironing, lying on the grass, etc. For Arcadia: sound of the sea in 2014 I chose photographs from the 1970s of boys surfing, laughing, looking at the ocean, fooling around, camping (often with dogs). This exhibition, someone described as Idle hours with more legs. 

There is a strong trend in contemporary art to depict the relationship between people and animals as strange; for animals to be used, in art, ‘in the service of dark themes’, as one leading contemporary curator put it (for example, there’s been a bit of a taxidermy revival … [Yes, I’ve noticed that – Ed]). I wanted to show that there are many contemporary Australian artists who depict the relationship between people and animals as it usually is, in my own experience: a bond of loyalty and joy. Crucially, I wanted to show the very various ways fifteen artists approach exactly the same subject; to get visitors excited about artists’ different ways of applying different kinds of paint to different surfaces.

Did you find it hard to select pet portraits, or where there many to choose from?

All the works in The Popular Pet Show are paintings, drawings and sculptures - there are no photographs. It was always intended as a warm show about our animal companions but also as a serious art show. Therefore, the works in the exhibition had to be of top quality, while making people happy as well. This is an unusual combination in art (a lot of undistinguished artists paint cats and dogs, and a lot of good artists make animals seem creepy or sinister). So, in fact, there were not many to choose from. Once I chose my artists, and told them about my vision for the show, quite a few of them created works with the exhibition in mind. Nicholas Harding, for example, created more than a dozen big new paintings just for the exhibition.  Ken Done made four portraits just for it. And so on. 

How important do you think companion animals are to artists?

Not all the artists in the exhibition have companion animals. However, those who do love them intensely. Painting can be a lonely process, intellectually and physically taxing. In extreme cases, and on intense days, an artist might not talk to another human being. At least when you have a dog you have to go out and walk and get some fresh air; you stretch out, you meet other people and you tend to talk sensibly. It’s cosy to have a companion in the studio – Lucy Culliton, who has about 160 companion animals, has all kinds of friends around her as she paints. Kristin Headlam’s dog has a basket in her studio. Darren McDonald’s dog is with him at all times. Ken Done has no dog at the moment but he said that when he did a good painting, his old dog, Spot, would bark. Ken’s family dogs are memorialised in his harbourside garden.

What species are included? Which species is most commonly portrayed and why do you think this is?

Dogs outnumber other species; I think they are the most popular pets in Australia, so it’s not surprising. Then come cats, then sheep, cattle and horses (kept as pets, not as farm animals). There are a few rabbits; quite a few native animals which are either being raised from orphanhood, or are imagined pets (including native birds); there is one lizard who lived in an artist’s garden and there is one fostered flying fox. Dogs are interesting to paint because of their variable textures and features; cats are nice to paint because of their fur. All animals with moveable ears are fun to paint – ears convey so much expression, so economically - but you have to understand how the ears attach to the body, and how they fold.

Do you cohabit with non-human companions and if so, can you tell us a bit about them? 

I do indeed cohabit with a non-human companion. Most of the dogs in the Pet Show are mongrels who have been rescued from shelters – either that, or they’re retired or unfit greyhounds. By contrast, my dog cost a fortune and came by plane from a luxurious kennel in the Hunter Valley. He is a labradoodle, whom my younger son named Acorn; and he is the very embodiment of sweetness, joy and zest for life. He is 8 ½ years old, is involved in everything, and still runs and leaps like a fool. We live in Canberra which is not called the Bush Capital for nothing. He runs morning and evening off-lead in the bush. We do have to be careful with grass seeds, so he gets a lot of brushing and bathing.

He eats the cheapest bits of free-range meat (it doesn’t make sense to me to insist on free range for us, because of cruelty issues, but buy intensively-farmed meat for him). He sleeps wherever he likes and usually has a go on everyone’s beds over the course of the night. It gives our family great pleasure to be in a position to give him such a good life. We know how lucky we are to have him, and to be able to spoil him. I have been known to make Christmas ornaments from his felted wool – some more successful than others. Having said all that, last night I clipped him (incorporating the annual clip of his tail dreadlocks, which are his pride and joy) and this morning I very pointedly did not get my wake-up cuddle. 

What have you learned about the human animal bond in curating this exhibition?

Like the beach, pets are great levellers. I found curating Arcadia that it didn’t matter what people’s socioeconomic circumstances or backgrounds were when it came to telling stories about their good times on the beach. I found curating The Popular Pet Show that everyone who loves an animal has something to talk about with anyone else who loves an animal. And when I wonder what different animals perceive, think about, experience: it’s a humbling mystery that exists day by day, right amongst us, in the form of even the humblest dog. Who needs to imagine an afterlife, or aliens?

I don’t necessarily dislike people who don’t like animals, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a person in whose life animals have no significance. It seems like a very barren existence to me.

Sarah, I totally agree! Thank you for answering our questions and sharing your knowledge! The Popular Pet Show opened on November 4 and runs until March 13. For more info visit the National Portrait Gallery website, where we happily discovered that you can also purchase a Ken Done dog bandana.