Tales that Wag the Dog
By Tom Wachunas
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principle difference between a dog and a man.” - Mark Twain –
“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as a dog does.” - Christopher Morley-
EXHIBITION: Allegory in Wood: James Mellick / at the Canton Museum of Art THROUGH OCTOBER 28/ 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio (330) 453 – 7666 / www.cantonart.org
One of the consequences of The Fall as described in Genesis was that humanity’s relationship with nature became terribly adversarial. We would thenceforth need to wrestle a reluctant, thorny earth to extract the luscious fruits it once so freely offered in Eden. Additionally, our originally harmonious stewardship of the animal kingdom eventually morphed into mutual bloodletting.
Was it desperate loneliness, hubris or guilt that made us reclaim part of that kingdom in the form of our evolved and epic emotional connecting with the dog? Those who nurture that connection have crowned the creature “man’s best friend” for the qualities and behaviors perhaps more aptly assigned to us as we would ideally prefer to see ourselves. We value our domesticated dogs for their undying loyalty, unquestioning obedience, willingness to comfort and protect us, eager dispensation of real affection – in short, for their unconditional love.
I often wonder if our sometimes too-obsessive worship of dogs and their manifest character traits (which we essentially engineered) isn’t some kind of moral transference on a societal scale. It reminds me of the old joke about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic who spends his nights thumbing through the Bible, looking for Dog.
Be that as it may, the history of visual art (as well as music, dance, theatre and literature) is replete with animals as metaphors for, or allegories of human affairs. For Columbus-based artist James Mellick, a deep love of animals has been coupled with lively storytelling in masterfully sculpted wood. In this exhibit, while there are some remarkably elegant abstract works, Mellick’s world has largely gone to the dogs, which he calls “the totem animals” of humankind.
His meticulously constructed canines are somewhat like large versions of antique wooden pull-toys with their anatomies cut into segments. This method of fashioning the dogs’ bodies could itself be considered a symbolic representation of multi-faceted, poetic narratives about human memories, behaviors, vexing questions or circumstances. Stories with layers, or interconnected parts as in a puzzle. Some of the stories (often provided as written accompaniments to the sculptures) are poignant and haunting, as in Ghost Dog, some starkly riveting (Blown Away), some wickedly whimsical or humorous (Darwin’s Dog).
And even if these wooden allegories were so arcane as to be completely indecipherable parables (which for the most part they are not), they’re worth our time if only to marvel at their exquisite workmanship and wondrous attention to stunning detail. Mellick doesn’t just sculpt his forms “out of wood” in the subtractive sense so much as he seems to lovingly caress them into being. Maybe it’s like coaxing an old best friend, as it were, into showing us new tricks.
PHOTOS, from www.jamesmellick.com / Top to bottom: Blown Away, Darwin’s Dog, Ghost Dog