Apparently a dog saved Robert Nixon’s political career, transforming him from swindling politician to sympathetic family man with a single strategically-timed intervention. This was in September 1952 and Nixon had just been accused of receiving illegal campaign contributions by his running mate, the Republican nominee Dwight Eisenhower.1 In a nationally broadcast television appearance Nixon pleaded his impoverishment, and stated categorically that there was one donation he simply could not return — a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been carted to the Nixon family all the way from Texas.^2 This cunning manoeuvre affirmed Nixon’s position as the everyday hero in the eyes of the suburban masses, thereby securing his political victory. Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin allegedly uses his pup to intimidate visiting foreign leaders, sending her as greeting messenger to set the tone of political debate.3 Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no pets. Which may indicate that he is not intelligent enough to think of manipulating one to his public favour, or perhaps suggests something deeper about the condition of his humanity.
So what is it to be loved by a dog? To have been committed to by one, or work with one in your immediate vicinity? In light of the above examples it would seem that a dog offers a dedicated partner in crime, irrespective of any particular awareness on their part of their own participation.
And for the artist? For George Stubbs (1724–1826), the animal as muse, as obsessive preoccupation, resulted in the production of his now well-known book of anatomical engravings The Anatomy of The Horse, a collection considered to be groundbreaking in its scientific accuracy.4 Driven by his need for greater realism in his own work, the largely self-taught artist began from 1756 to hang a succession of horse carcasses from the ceiling of a barn in Horkstow, England, stripping back layers of tissues over a period of eighteen months to reveal new layers of equine tissue, muscle and bone, from which he created a series of anatomical drawings from the frontal, lateral and posterior view.^5 An astonishing feat of irrepressible curiosity.
For painter Amanda Marburg, whose dogs have recently begun to take on a more visible role in her practice, they occupy a similar position in her psyche — that of the creative preoccupation, the muse. She paints them because she is, simply put, ‘obsessed with them’. The shift in subject matter corresponds to a shift in scenery; Marburg has recently exchanged her open-plan and co-habitational studio space of ten years in the Nicholas Building, central Melbourne, for the more picturesque and somewhat secluded Hanging Rock. She has traded in the traditional colleague for a new, more devotionally contoured form of companionship. In this new setting, the dogs make it easier to work; a warm body next to the easel to turn it into a more enticing prospect over icy winter months. Her recent show at Sutton Gallery, Would you let me into your bed (2018) (a title both amusing and terribly endearing when one considers the intensity and authenticity of the animal emotion behind the sentiment) offers up intimate portraits of dogs, alongside images of other things that have captured her attention of late — objects and ideas sourced from literature, the landscape, podcasts. A pair of studies depicts her own young pup Darcy next to Audrey (now deceased), the pet of close friend and fellow painter Colleen; an animal who Marburg spent many nights curled up against during stays on Colleen’s couch. The two dogs face each other in an expanded representation of the women’s own long partnership. Taking Stubbs’ works as a reference point, for posture if not style, Marburg has imbued these works with some of Stubbs’ animal regality; Darcy clearly lords over her miniature landscape. Marburg’s esteem is evident; she approaches her subject matter with equal parts gravity and irreverence.Then there are landscape shots of Hanging Rock, and a beautiful series of a dog floating, bewildered, frozen in time and slightly hazy; images taken from film stills. An intimation of form through layers of blue blue water.
For Marburg, it seems this new collaborative relationship with animals has liberated her to the possibility of subject matter that is both lighter and more personal. Indeed, this lightness in the show is perhaps indicative of the joy she has found in this particular obsession. For while Marburg’s style, articulated via a process of making that involves first creating a subject in plasticine and then rendering the scene onto canvas or board, aesthetically connotes a certain sense of naivety or playfulness, the brightness of these often sweetly-coloured works have historically jarred against the darkness of her subject matter (in one show images were taken from 1970s skin magazines, and another depicts Grimm’s fairy tale characters embroiled in the violent conclusion of their predetermined stories). In contrast this latest exhibition, while far more subdued in palette, is thematically relatively light. The potential for a reading of superficiality is mitigated however by each subject’s embedding into a narrative landscape that extends beyond the confines of the works. This is perhaps a result of Marburg’s process of making, her method of meticulously constructing an entire scene in order to create the images she holds clearly in her mind’s eye. The specificity of the image she is trying to create means she completes only the side of the figurine that she will photograph, leaving the rest unmade, articulated only in clumsy gesture. As a result, her figures exist within an imagined universe: one can easily imagine them wandering off frame, or opening their mouths to speak. They are mid-way through a plotline, and we are glimpsing them in a single freeze-frame. It remains unclear whether or not Darcy is aware of her own contribution to the exhibition. Held up in Marburg’s arms in front of her portrait, she stared for a time. Perhaps she recognised some veracity with the four-legged beast on the wall. As a recent article in the New York Times enunciated:
‘[a] dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love: with intense, unwavering focus, attentive to every move the beloved makes, unaware of imperfections, desiring little more than to be close, to be entwined, to touch and touch and touch.’6
And when push comes to shove, and deadline is looming fast, isn’t that really what you need most?
A creature to gaze at you with unfailing faith, unwavering adoration. One with a desire to help that is unmatched in intensity, despite the fact that it possesses neither faculty nor attributive features to really do so successfully. Lacking the kind of self- awareness or reflective capacities to experience existential dread or fear of impending failure, a dog makes the ideal companion for one embarking on a project with a less than certain conclusion. A dog is unconcerned by your measure of success in the world. They are a companion whose love will remain unmitigated, conviction unchanged, even if you fail spectacularly. The rest of your connection to the artistic community, surely you can basically get from Instagram.
Genevieve Trail is an independent writer based in Naarm/Melbourne.