NEW YORK — Shortly after I met him, the curator of a group show opening in Manhattan sat beside me on the floor of a studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. I reached over and petted his fur, and he licked my hand. The curator’s name was Rocky. He’s a Morkshire terrier with final approval over the artworks in Dogumenta, which caters to the sensibilities of a previously underserved demographic: dogs.
“I met him on Monday, and on Tuesday I asked him to come home with me,” Rocky’s owner, art critic Jessica Dawson (who freelanced for The Washington Post for over a decade) says in explaining her relationship with the curator. Dawson found Rocky at a SoHo animal shelter not long after she moved to New York several years ago, and as a pair, they have navigated the city’s at times overwhelming gallery scene.
Named after Documenta, a prestigious art exhibition in its 14th edition in Kassell, Germany, Dogumenta is the first U.S. exhibition made specifically for dogs. (British designer Dominic Wilcox developed an exhibition for dogs in London last year.) The concept might seem like the art world’s equivalent of the talking-animal movie, but as that much-maligned subgenre (in one of its better recent examples, Kevin Spacey voiced a grumpy cat in “Nine Lives”) can teach us something about being human, so the enthusiasm of a dog unfettered by current art trends can teach us to let our aesthetic hair down, so to speak.
“It’s easy to become overwhelmed and jaded,” Dawson says of the New York art world. But Rocky doesn’t approach art with human preconceptions. “Every time he sees a Jeff Koons,” Dawson notes about the pop artist who installed a 43-foot topiary puppy at Rockefeller Center in 2000, “he doesn’t go [rolling eyes], ‘Jeff Koons again!’ like we do.”
In February, Dawson delivered her thesis, “Five Things My Dog Taught Me About Art” to a Bushwick gallery audience consisting of artists, curators and critics, and put out her first call for Dogumenta.
What has Rocky taught Dawson about art? For one thing, fearlessness. “I love that he went with his gut,” Dawson says.
Among the participating artists in Dogumenta is Graham Caldwell, who ran a glass studio in Hyattsville, Md., and moved to New York almost 10 years ago. How does it feel to be selected for a show like this?
“It’s different!” Caldwell approaches the challenges of making art for dogs with an enthusiasm that comes in part from his own canine companion, Minnow.
The 10-year-old dachshund-papillon mix might be a harsher critic than Rocky. “Dogs can be brutally dismissive,” Caldwell says. “Especially my dog — she makes these snippy scoffy sounds if she’s not interested in a person.” What about his art? For instance, what does Minnow think of “Glimpse Machine,” Caldwell’s 2013 installation consisting of a 10-by-20-foot cluster of rearview mirrors?
“She doesn’t care,” Caldwell says. “It hurts a little.”
For Dogumenta, Caldwell took his art in a different direction, creating a set of child-size sofas covered entirely in grass sod. Although the concept is tailored for dogs, the perishability of the material (this is, after all, going to be only a three-day show) speaks to Caldwell’s appreciation of ruined landscapes. The piece also addresses a dog’s perception of a world made for humans. “They use people stuff, but in a much different way. They have a different purpose for it,” Caldwell says.
They also have different perceptions. “All canines see in blue and a yellow-green,” Dawson explains. “That didn’t stop Rocky from loving Dan Flavin’s light works. If a painting is in a spectrum that is unknowable to him, he’ll be happy to discuss surface and texture.”
“We’re not even aware of what he’s smelling or perceiving that we aren’t,” says Mica Scalin, who, along with Dawson, is one of the show’s organizers. This is a great opportunity for artists to play with some of those different perceptions.”
Does Rocky ever have a bad reaction to art? Yes, and in one case, it indicates the curator’s prudish streak. “He’s a little bit of a Victorian at heart,” Dawson says of Rocky’s reaction to a work by Camille Henrot that pictured several dogs copulating, “ahem, doggy style. And Rocky . . . can’t see the dogs engaging in their natural behavior sometimes. When he doesn’t like something, he’s completely willing to just walk out of the door.”
Some of the works in Dogumenta are meant to stimulate senses museums rarely address, such as smell.
“One artist is making work out of kibble,” Scalin says. Dan Sherwood is a trained pastry chef who “uses food presentation in her work. She creates these sort of baroque feasts for wild animals. She’s a big dog lover, and this will be her first feast for dogs.”
Examining a mock-up of work by Merav Ezer consisting of silhouettes of various dogs, Rocky seems more interested in the people around him. In their final form, the dog-shape forms will be fitted with motion sensors that will bark when triggered.
“The nondog or dog stand-in will then try to interact with the real dog, and we’ll see how much of a conversation they will actually have,” Dawson says. The mock-up suggests a benign version of experiments made by psychologist Harry Harlow, who observed the anxiety of rhesus monkeys separated from their mothers and left with only a wire surrogate for comfort. Yet, much as art can be a balm in uncertain times, this show will address canine anxieties.
“One piece has a sound element that coos gentle whispering, ‘Ooh, honey, it’s okay!’ ” Dawson says.
Dogumenta is an exhibition for dogs, but it encourages a tenderness and openness sometimes lacking in modern art.
Dogumenta, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. Aug. 11-13, Brookfield Place, Waterfront Plaza, 230 Vesey St., New York.