On the day this reviewer visited Ngununggula to see the exhibition New Dog Old Tricks, the grounds of the gallery were busy with canines and their owners. The curators know their audience, having chosen to mark the summer exhibition season with an exhibition presenting the dog as key to other worlds.
The ubiquitous presence of the dog in Australian society is explored throughout the exhibition. Todd Fuller invokes the suburban Australian backyard, with his signature animation presented behind a white picket fence and visitors invited to hang their own drawings on a washing line. Billy Bain reimagines himself as a dog walker, with a ceramic figure of the artist surrounded by a motley crew of mutts. A large group of photographs by the late Robert Walker honour the ongoing and loyal presence of the studio dog for Australian artists.
The range of chosen artists and works in New Dog Old Tricks showcases the complex relationship between humans and dogs. Del Kathryn Barton’s and Julia Gutman’s works evoke the uniquely comforting connection that can exist between dog and human, while Jason Phu’s and Marc Etherington’s respective paintings each mine this relationship for poignant humour. But far from being simply a celebration of ‘best friends’, a psychologically unsettling streak comes through in the show in works such as Madeleine Pfull’s series of performance-led paintings, Louise Hearman’s ominous series of animal portraits, and Guido Maestri’s investigation of the Dingo Fence.
While the exhibition is dominated by specially commissioned works by 10 contemporary Australian artists, the curators have also broadened its historical context with local and international works borrowed from major Australian institutions. The inclusion of a small Balloon Dog sculpture and White Terrier maquette byJeff Koons is cute and invokes the iconic, larger versions of those works – who can forget the impact that Koons’ floral sculpture Puppy had on Sydney when it was installed outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995?
A more surprising historical addition is the work of William Wegman, whose film segments with his Weimaraner dog Fay Ray will be a familiar sight to those of us who grew up watching Sesame Street in the 1980s and 90s. The placement of Fuller’s animation and Wegman’s films at the nose and tail of the exhibition ensure the audience arrives and leaves with a sense of the animal’s vitality as well as the individual storytelling within the works.
The exhibition also includes a light-hearted series of public programs designed to draw in locals and their four-legged friends – a reminder of the significant role that regional galleries play in bringing together local communities. While the theme of this exhibition was no doubt designed for broad appeal, the strength of the works and range of artists included in New Dog Old Tricks demonstrates the complex roles dogs play in society, and in positioning this as a topic worthy of investigation reveals its capacity to say much about the human condition.
New Dog Old Tricks
Ngununggula, Southern Highlands Regional Gallery
Art Gallery Road, Bowral, NSW
25 November 2023 – 4 February 2024