Saturday, November 29, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: To the Dogs by Peter Culley

Poet Peter Culley’s To the Dogs (Arsenal Pulp Press) is both stunning and fatally flawed. Which of those things weighs the most heavily will most likely depend on where you stand.

Culley explores the canine/human connection with an artist’s eye. That is to say that while books that collect historic and contemporary photographs and tie them together -- even lightly -- with editorial are generally spurred by some passion for the future well-being of all canines. One doesn’t get any of that from Culley. In fact, I’m fairly certain -- though not absolutely sure -- that Culley is not a dog owner at all. His essays are careful, clever and sometimes even insightful, but they never zoom to the place where dogs and humans connect. I suspect this is a place of which Culley is not even aware.
The “faithfulness” of the dog is both cliché and description, and it encompasses not only the dogs loyalty to humans but also its equally reliable connection with their older ways of being. The OED’s historical mosaic speaks to a connection with dogs that transcends both language and circumstance; in photographs and paintings, the postures of the humans can render them barely recognizable in present terms, but the dog is always contemporary.
Part of this distance might stem from the fact that To the Dogs began life as an exhibition at Presentation House Gallery back in the summer of 2007. The book reflects this heritage in every spill of ink. The photographs include the work of Lee Friedlander, Pieter Hugo, Bruce Davidson, William Wegman, Paul Kane, Shari Hatt, Amy Stein and others. The subjects include Yves St. Laurent, General Custer, Peggy Guggenheim and Andy Warhol, plus many more whose attached names would not impress you, yet whose inclusion is intended to underscore the place dogs have held in the history of humankind. It’s an exhibit I would have liked to have seen.

To the Dogs is a worthwhile book. Beautifully produced and presented, in some ways what it lacks in passion and understanding it makes up for in execution. Is that enough? Almost.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home