Dogs and Their People: Symbols of Home Life Re-examined
By Lyz Bly
"Mirror" by Duffy and Miller.
A Series of Minor Miracles: Works by Elizabeth Duffy and Brian Miller
Through May 21
raw & co gallery
1009 Kenilworth Ave.
Per Knutas, raw & co owner, took a winter hiatus, as he explains, to "regroup, recover and refocus [the gallery's] mission." The break served him well, as the current exhibition, A Series of Minor Miracles: Works by Elizabeth Duffy and Brian Miller, is stunning, smart and sound.
Based on the 15th century Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck's famous Arnolfini Portrait — which depicts connubial couple Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami Arnolfini — the installation comprises seven sumptuous, pigment print photographs, a medallion made of human and dog hair, and a table and 15th century footwear carved of basswood.
Van Eyck's painting is charged with the symbols and accoutrements of middle class domesticity, and so it has been endlessly decoded and recoded by art historians. The betrothed couple is lavishly dressed. A pert terrier stands between them, signifying loyalty and obedience. Giovanna, donning a luxurious green dress, stands in front of a well-made bed, alluding to her sexuality and to the interior, private realm of home and family. Giovanni stands next to his kicked-off, clog-patten shoes, and several oranges are visible on a table behind him. The shoes and the oranges — an exotic fruit in 15th century Belgium — symbolize the public realm of trade, work and commerce. The sum of these parts makes Arnolfini Portrait a study of merchant-class gender roles during the Renaissance period in Northern Europe.
Elizabeth Duffy and Brian Miller are domestic partners and artist-collaborators. This makes their contemporary examination of the iconography of the Arnolfini Portrait particularly compelling. The photos, Paws Her and Paws Him, depict the paws of each artist's dog. Opportunely, each dog's sex corresponds with its owner's gender. Duffy's female dog's paw is large and burly, and Miller's male dog's paw is slight and fair; pink flesh shows through his fine, caramel-colored fur. These images simply yet cleverly undermine stereotypical notions of sex and gender, which are often imprudently applied to creatures that traverse feral and domestic realms. Moreover, the dog paws reference the ever-loyal canine in Van Eyck's painting.
The artists created a three-dimensional version of Giovanni's clog-pattens, placing them on an intricately carved basswood table. The pattens are finely wrought and contrast nicely with the more roughly fashioned table. They are placed to the right of a photograph of an elegant, green satin dress, which is paired with a photograph of a man's red plaid flannel shirt. In this context, the shoes and their symbolic tie to the public realm are coupled with the feminine via the photograph of the green dress.
Duffy's and Miller's beloved pets show up again in Dog Hair Medallion, which comprises tufts of enmeshed human and dog hair, flattened between two pieces of plexiglass. The profile of a man is carved into one clump of hair, and the silhouette of a woman is carved into a second. The piece is trenchantly humorous in its banality as anyone who owns a pet is all too familiar with the task of cleaning animal hair off floors and furniture. Yet the fusion of animal and human hair reveals something deeper. The commingling of "civilization" and "nature" are shades
of domestication between women and men and their antecedently feral pet-beasts.
Aside from its conceptual connection to the earlier painting, the exhibition is visually striking and fits wonderfully in the small, spare gallery space. It is a fitting starting point for Knutas' next era of curatorial ventures.