The Hand of Dog

by Stuart Forsyth

The Hand of Dog | Stuart Forsyth | Toi Pōneke, Pōneke

05.06.23 | written by Louie Zalk-Neale

Stuart clearly loves Roo.

Why else would someone make an entire exhibition about their dog if they weren’t driven by love? I’m sure, naturally, there’s a bit of resentment there too, considering how much of Stuart’s stuff Roo has chewed through. I don’t think he minds the shit—there’s clearly a lot. And that’s just part of the commitment you make when you bring a dog into your life.

Stuart’s relationship with Roo could be grossly simplified to an exchange where dog receives beige biscuits, and human receives shit, hair, vomit, and torn-up clothes. But this exhibition shows that Stuart is devoted, and their lives are matted together like shit in carpet—but in a nice way.
Stuart Forsyth, The Hand of Dog, 2023. Installation view. 
Stuart Forsyth, Hair of the Dog, 2023. Dog hair, knitting needles. 
A crochet blanket, clearly ripped up by a dog, hangs as a homely veil at the gallery entrance. On the ground, a collection of items chewed by the dog are swept together like the wind blew it all in through the door and it accumulated neatly along the edge of the wall. A bucket, milk bottles, a jandal, a ball, all punctured and tattered by what must have been very therapeutic as both a quelling of boredom and vigorous dental stimulation. Roo’s mark is left on every object in the show, as dogs like to do. Stuart has made ceramic emulations of Roo’s daily gifts (by which I mean shits), mimicking all the variations of form and footwear imprints that Roo’s shit has experienced. Held up on plinths and shelves, they are tributes to special moments. Living in messily close proximity to Roo has led Stuart to make two impressive balls of felted dog hair speared through with a pair of knitting needles.

The Hand of Dog illustrates that having a pet living in your home is deeply intimate, sometimes horrifyingly so—and yet, this is a meaningful part of many people’s lives. An artist and their pet seamlessly becomes an artist/muse relationship. The endless stream of pet-made detritus is a dangerous catalyst if you have sentimental hoarding tendencies, so why not transform it all into a comprehensive display of affection?
Stuart Forsyth, Meat Puppet 1, 2023. Silicone, cornflour, food colouring, plastic chopsticks. 
With everyday materials informing the domestic, made-at-home aesthetic of the artworks in The Hand of Dog, Stuart shows artworks with a playful resourcefulness that is widely relatable. Ad-hoc figures (Meat Puppets) made from chopsticks in thick chunks of meat roll (albeit a pink silicone version) might happen any day at home while daydreaming in the kitchen. In the gallery they’re elevated; reframed as important objects. The physicality of Stuart’s art practice is modest, and the vibe is a winking ridiculousness that undercuts the classic gravity of art in galleries. And although I haven’t come across ceramic dog shits before, Stuart’s modes of working are not particularly unusual in contemporary art. He has chosen a particular topic and pored over its details, documenting obsessively in a Sophie Calle sort of way—a pseudo-scientific or amateur ethnographic inquiry—then translated objects into another material, with a large dose of jokey fun mixed in to hold people’s attention. Maybe it’s not that simple. This layer of humour had me thinking beyond the veneer of lols. Being an artist affords the ability to deeply trust one’s urges and interests, which often looks self-indulgent, obsessive and perhaps unhealthy. But I don’t think Stuart’s humorously expressed self-awareness of the absurdity within his practice is for the sole purpose of shielding him from appearing completely reckless in his obsession. I did somehow sense meaningful emotion as I wandered past vast piles of shit and dog biscuits.
Stuart Forsyth, Toothbrush, 2020.  Dog-affected electric toothbrush.
However, among the puns, dad-jokes and dry parodic descriptions in every artwork title, there was one sculpture that didn’t prompt a sly smile like all the others: Pain & Suffering, a wax-cast version of Roo’s amputated leg hanging from a meat hook, dark brown and curled up. It felt like a note of icy seriousness amongst a smattering of fuzzy jokes. It didn’t seem to honour the dog and their inherent joyousness in the way the rest of the exhibition did. Perhaps the visual pun that Stuart is channelling suggests the leg is “just a piece of meat” that Roo didn’t require in order to have a good life. But the association of the meat hook with butchering animals for food obscures any jokes in this particular work. The Hand of Dog documents the unsanitary overflow of a domesticated dog with a light-hearted vulgarity, and so Pain & Suffering could be part of Stuart’s indiscriminate survey of bodily function and suburban banality, which isn’t always easy to laugh about. For me, this artwork represents the underlying emotional patchwork that underpins the rest of the show. It evokes the grief that anyone would feel when their dog has to go through difficult, painful times. The implied butchering of a beloved dog conjures empathy for the animals who experience abhorrent exploitation and unnecessary death in the farming industry, which is so banal that most people just roll with it and eat their chicken thighs and chug their cow’s milk.
Stuart Forsyth, Pain & Suffering, 2023. Wax, metal chain, meat hook.
But thank god (dog) the whole gallery isn’t filled with dismembered body parts. Funny art is important! We all deserve the same baseline of bliss enjoyed by smiling labradors, hip-wagging pugs and erratically happy miscellaneous crossbred dogs like Roo. There’s a lot to learn from beings that experience their surroundings with a visceral lack of criticality, yet a deep awareness of the present moment. Let us be guided by the hand of dog.

Article image: Stuart Forsyth, Biscuit Theory (The Beige Period), 2022. Fired clay.  

Stuart Forsyth, The Hand of Dog, 2023. 17 February – 17 March 2023 at Toi Pōneke, Pōneke.

All photos courtesy of the artist. 

Editor’s note: Roo sadly passed away before the closing of the exhibition, evidently after a full and well-loved life. 

ISSN 2744-7952

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