A drunk in the Bronx once shared an insight into dogs with me. Looking at his own mutt he said: “I would never do this, but I could kick this dog right now and one minute later he’d still curl up in bed next to me.” Well, ancestors of dogs lived in hierarchical packs and if the alpha male attacked you, you needed to bounce back and make that guy happy: hence the quality dogs have of unconditional love and devotion. Dogs have been used extensively in art to convey this, yet, throughout the history of art, the dog (and pets in general) often represented our “lower” nature. The dog in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait might have represented lust. The Duke of Mantua in a painting by Titian shows he has tamed his Maltese, proving his amazing self-mastery and qualifications to rule. In a painting at the Met by Frans Hals, a man holds the snout of a dog in his lower left hand while raising a glass of wine in his right, showing a possible evolution from our animal to a more human nature (wine representing the blood of God, which can elevate us to mercy, tolerance, fraternal love and everything “higher”).
James Rieck plays with this tradition of using pets as qualities of ourselves in his current show at Lyons Wier Gallery, one of New York’s premier venues for Conceptual Realism. Rieck is known for referencing the visual iconography of the heyday of American advertising and he places the designer pet within this context. In the 1950s, following the lead of Dr. Ernest Dicker (founder of the Institute for Motivational Research), ad guys worked hard to dismantle the traditional American values of restraint and thrift. Dicker advised that Americans would buy luxury goods if they felt they truly deserved to indulge themselves after sacrifice and hard work, and/or if the ad guys could tap into the irrational and subconscious needs catalogued in Freudian psychology. This strategy of cajoling and seducing Americans into buying things provided the Scylla and Charybdis that crushed frugality, allowing rabid self-absorption and consumerism to thrive to this day. The pet becomes a type of Freudian need, and not a symbol, in Rieck’s work.
No, the animals do not work as symbols of the human subjects in my opinion because in many of Rieck’s paintings we see a clear discrepancy between the experience of the animal and the human possessor. There seems to be an uncomfortable lack of harmony in these depicted relationships – the type of harmony many of us experienced as children is missing, when our dog or cat was a type of Harpo Marx buddy and the relationship was not blown out of proportion due to an overbalance of emotional neediness on our part.
In his work Buttery, Rieck crops an image of a woman to reveal her smile of self-satisfaction and self-confidence with a resigned pet staring off in the distance with a somewhat glazed look. In Coco the creases around the woman’s mouth betray the effort to generate happiness under her current circumstances while we meet the gaze of the hapless dog humoring the woman. In Daisy the dog looks away from the woman who is gleefully taking delight in the comfort the animal confers to her as in Master Bedroom where the woman is engaged in a moment of overwhelming bliss while the pooch seems interested in other matters. We meet the gaze of the cat in Sunroom and have no answer for it. We are mute and helpless spectators as the cat is being carried away for an emotional purpose it could never possibly comprehend nor wishes to offer. We can neither help the cat nor person, who may be in such deep denial that she may not want help. In Powder Room the cat dangles uncomfortably looking at us quizzically. In Rocky the dog is oblivious to the effect he is having and wants out. Poor Snowball is openly suffering while her owner expresses joy.
So some questions might be: Why are all the people in these works women? Is Rieck making a commentary similar to Wolfe’s in The Beauty Myth? Do we think women are doing OK in the USA because they seem to have power, opportunities and money, but they are really still suffering and we can only see traces of this suffering if we look closely at sometimes strange social phenomena? Are women turning to pets for comfort because men have become more unreliable as women have become more equal? Or is Rieck merely using women models because he is so fascinated with the golden age of department store advertising and attractive and apparently happy women were used heavily in these ads?
In any case, Rieck and Lyons Wier take a contemporary social phenomenon and highlight it as a possible analog of a type of bizarre relationship that may extend to various types of interpersonal relationships. The images of the female models clinging to their pets becomes a metaphor for one-sided relationships whether they be emotional, economic or social.