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KIMBERLY MERRILL

April 25 - June 6, 2009 at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, Santa Monica

by Suvan Geer




“Lenny,” oil on linen
mounted in frame.












“Chiquita,” oil on linen
mounted in frame.














“Lily,” oil on linen mounted in frame.














“Mr. Wiggles,” oil on
linen mounted in frame.

Portraits can be telling. More than a subject’s external likeness, there is an expectation that a portrait will offer up something of the essence of the sitter, their ‘real’ self. We look for it in the way they hold their head, the shape of a lip, and the lines around the eyes. It is that unspoken expectation of being able to read faces and bodies so as to gain insight into another mind that is strangely tweaked and thrown off kilter by Kimberly Merrill’s oil on panel portraits, not of people, but of dogs.

Merrill takes our assumptions about what a portrait can reveal and mixes things up by focusing on canines. Historically our attitudes towards dogs have been reflected in the images we made of them. During the Renaissance, images of dogs were often simply symbolic; their bodies were added to a painting’s spiritual narrative as furry emblems of attributes like faithfulness to the painting’s spiritual narrative. In the 17th century, Rembrandt's etching, “The Good Samaritan at the Inn” prominently featured a defecating mongrel and so reflected popular opinion that animals were simple, unfeeling beasts, quite apart from the moral struggles and higher virtues of the human versus the fauna sphere. By the 18th and 19th century however, pictures of canines found in grand portrait paintings emphasized the dog’s refinement and pure breeding; a reflection of the wealth, status and sensitivity of their noble masters. Over time these dogs were portrayed with increasing sentimentality, the obvious love between beast and owner, felt by the viewer, was meant to be taken as evidence of the owner's expansive humanity.

While contemporary images of dogs assimilate all this history, Merrill’s paintings attempt a different tack. While they present us with splendid images of dogs, none features picture-perfect examples of breeding. Neither do they offer their canines as conceptual art props in the vein of William Wegman’s Man Ray and Fay Ray photographs. And, despite loveable attributes like bright eyes and fluffy fur, they also don’t come off as just tender icons of human affection. Rather, each of Merrill’s domestic beasts seems a unique individual and exudes a quiet sense of their own presence. Each image also carries a small, stubborn emotional distance or “otherness;” and this distance becomes more disconcerting the longer we look, expecting to recognize and easily define what it is the dog’s expression means or what it is they are feeling.

This is most clear in the small portraits. While Merrill’s larger paintings of dogs in wilderness landscapes remind us of their grounding in nature, it is when she focuses on the dogs’ faces that we most sense our inter-species’ differences and the gulf between their individuality and our own. The artist does this by adopting many of the techniques of historic human portraiture. Her canine subjects are posed formally, shown seated and tightly cropped so we often only see them from the chest up and contrasted against dark grounds. Each animal looks directly at us or just off to the side. Intimately scaled and set in wide gilt frames, these images repeatedly remind us of human portraits we have seen hanging in museums.

The effect is enhanced by the beautiful way the artist renders each dog in the sensuous liquidity of oil paint. We revel in the translucent skin, rosy with the reflected glow of bright pink cushions cast on the slightly obese belly of the white Chihuahua, “Chiquita.” We linger over the fleshy solidity on the neck and half turned head on the white Pit Bull “Lenny.” We are mesmerized by his blue eye, gazing off into the distance, and the self contained contradiction of inaccessibility his posture seems to suggest. “Whistler” is a grey coated, golden-eyed Weimaraner looking directly at the viewer, with lips slightly parted. It’s a haunting study in subtle coloring and composition as well as a small reminder about the power and ultimate indecipherability of the gaze—yes, even a dog’s.  

Merrill is a fan of artists such as the 18th-century court painter Jean-Baptise Oudry, featured recently in the Getty’s “Painted Menagerie” exhibit. Her work similarly wields rich color and subtle plays of value to create the mood in her animal images. But historians and viewers have long debated if Oudry intended to simply document and revel in painting the exotic animal celebrities touring Europe at that time, or if he was also perhaps suggesting something of the beast’s self-consciousness in being treated as living exhibits and objects of observation.

Merrill’s statement makes clear that she sees dogs as “domesticated individuals”, with their own “living breathing spirit” and “dignity.” By turning that sensibility on the canine face and calling on painting’s historic language, she manages to rattle our preconceived notions of canine subjectivity, raise questions about how we know what a dog feels, or how it is we visually determine/define a being’s sentience or sense of self. Makes them pretty tricky little dog pictures.