Paws for Effect 

Artist takes interesting approach to painting man's best friend

Artist takes interesting approach to painting man's best friend

Dog Days: Paintings by Cheryl Pfeiffer

Through Nov. 13

Ruby Green Contemporary Arts Foundation

514 Fifth Ave. S.

Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

For information, call 244-7179

Dogs may be man’s best friend, but we don’t just love them for who they are. Often it seems we love our canine companions for their capacity to reflect who we are. Whether it’s a talking Chihuahua selling tacos or a terrier portraying famous literary characters on public television, we respond to animals that look, act, and sound like us.

Sewanee artist Cheryl Pfeiffer plays to these egocentric instincts in 17 new oil paintings now on view at Ruby Green. But while the subject of each work is an often adorable dog, the surreal surfaces and situations in which these canines are presented keep the “oh, isn’t he cute” factor out of the picture. That’s not to say there aren’t some personality-filled pups here, though.

“In its appeal, this is definitely our most universal show yet,” says gallery director and co-founder Chris Campbell. “These are images that reach out beyond art, and we’ve had a lot of people come in just because they love dogs.”

Fans of surrealism and abstraction will find much to appreciate in Pfeiffer’s works. Most of the paintings feature a densely layered, rubbed, and glazed surface that serves as a mysterious playing field for the terrier, bulldog, or hound in the painting. In fact, if the dogs and the various props such as balls and flaming hoops were removed from the works, the backgrounds could almost stand on their own as abstracts. “I love figurative work,” says Pfeiffer. “But I’m also interested in trying to make the figurative a part of a surreal or abstract atmosphere.”

To create that kind of atmosphere, Pfeiffer coats her canvases with a bright base of red, lime-green, or yellow and then adds darker layers of paint, mixing and rubbing away paint and applying glazes so that the brighter colors peer through, especially around the outer edges of the canvas. Finally, the artist brings the dog into play—almost literally—on the surface. Dogs dive into the picture plane from the corner or leap across it through a fiery hoop. Others balance balls on their noses or chase a ball of yarn through a field of flowers. “I’m a dog lover, and I’m fascinated by the roles they play in our lives as companions, entertainers, and, of course, advertising props,” Pfeiffer says.

Pfeiffer’s main model is her 2-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Nilla. The dog loves balls and is seen with them in several works. It is Nilla who tracks an errant ball of yarn through a dauntingly thick field of sunflowers, Nilla who balances one of three red balls on her nose, and Nilla who dives blissfully into a canvas filled with red balls floating on a field of yellow-green. For her other dog subjects, Pfeiffer turns to local talent. “There are a lot of dogs in my neighborhood [near the University of the South, where Pfeiffer is gallery director], and I take photos of them with a digital camera. Sometimes I create a composite of different dogs because I really like mutts.”

A few of the paintings feature dogs dressed in human attire, another example of how humans like to see themselves in their pets. In “Wonder Dog,” a black-and-white mutt poses in a red and blue shirt and cape worthy of a superhero. In “Circus Act,” a small dog capers on its hind legs, wearing the classic circus dog attire of pink tutu and feathered hat. For the most part, though, Pfeiffer’s dogs sport only a collar, and the artist focuses instead on their nearly human expressions or reactions to their environment.

In a work called “Disarming,” for example, a Doberman with a red spiked collar points its sharp nose at a daisy and sniffs delicately. The yellow center of the daisy emits a surreal glow, and this traditional guard dog seems to give in to its sensitive side. In “Little Trainer,” a tiny Boston bull terrier, wearing an anxious expression, straddles a large red ball. The source of the terrier’s nervousness is not only the oversized ball that threatens to upend him, but a gallery of disembodied human eyes that peer at him from an upper corner of the canvas. The eyes, which appear in several of the works, suggest both the dog’s desire for human approval and the human fascination with watching pets perform.

“I like the idea of the viewer looking at the painting, while the painting mirrors this kind of activity back onto the viewer,” Pfeiffer says. “There’s a kind of vulnerability and power, voyeuristic perhaps, in this kind of interaction.”

Pfeiffer’s terrier Nilla might agree. When the artist finished “The Juggler,” which portrays the dog playing with three red balls against a dreamlike backdrop of charcoal and green, Nilla had a very human reaction. “I brought her into the studio and she started barking at the painting,” says Pfeiffer. “She had never done that before.”

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