Imagine "cute" as a place. It would be populated by kittens and puppies that never age, bunnies that hide brightly colored eggs, and impossibly chubby cheeked infants who never soil their diapers or cry all night long. Such a world, soft and full of happy endings, is a refuge from the one we live in, where accidents occur, bad guys often win and forgiveness is rare. Our collective desire for this fantasy world manifests itself in our popular culture and even in our relationships with our pets. Dogs starring in movies, uncomfortable pet costumes, kitten calendars -- too often our domesticated animals become victims in our pursuit of "cute."
Lauren Davies's dog sculptures are not cute. On display at the Nelson Gallery at the University of California, Davis, through December 7, 2008, Davies's sculptures take anthropomorphism to an absurd extreme. Made of shed dog fur collected from pet groomers, the small models (they range from 7-by-8 to 17-by-14 inches) are closer to taxidermy than the stuffed animals that crowd toy store shelves.
Davies does not craft generic dogs, or even mutts, but specific, built-to-scale breeds -- the Maltese, the Australian Shepherd, the West Highland White Terrier, the Shetland Sheepdog. Fur is carefully arranged into appropriate color patterns -- Davies's Australian Shepherd has the characteristic brown coat with black patches. Her Old English Sheepdog's fur is realistically matted and curled. The sleeping Cocker Spaniel is a dormant puddle of curled auburn fur. I wanted to ignore the sign and touch the dogs. Would I feel a warm, breathing belly underneath that familiar fur? I snuck a quick pinch, a brush of a leg, and it was cold.
As animated as Davies's creations are, they haunt more than they charm. Lacking eyes, noses, and mouths, they are faceless reproductions filled not with organs but with fur. Significantly, Davies builds the animals from the undesirable part of the dog. Shedding is the seedy underbelly of dog ownership. Shed fur snowballs beneath beds and in corners, upsetting clean houseguests; it coats black clothing and car seats, deterring passengers. Unlike rabbit fur, it is not spun into wool or knit into sweaters. It is thrown away.
Davies uses dog waste to create ghosts, models too real to be cute. In doing so, she mocks our culture's desire to turn pets into malleable stuffed animals with human needs and characteristics. Her sculptures both tempt and thwart our impulse to view pets as cuter versions of ourselves. It is a human impulse, this desire for another version of our world. For in the land of "cute," death and dust bunnies have no home.
Lauren Davies's Dog Models is included in the exhibition Aggregate: Three One-Person Shows, which also includes work by artists Laura Breitman and Camille Utterback. The exhibition is on display at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery, located in Room 124, the Art Building, at UC Davis, through December 7, 2008.