Wylie: Wally Dugs catch artist’s eye

The Scottish vernacular, wally dugs, piqued artist Susan Menzies interest for a showing at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

Susan Menzies in front of the installation of her paintings

No artist can ever fully grasp or explain exactly why he or she is drawn to a particular subject, just as we can never truly know ourselves, or another person.

The full reasons one decides to paint something or write about something can never be fully understood. Even when artists talk about their work (which so many of them are loathe to do) they are really just talking around it—their influences, their materials, their ideas—and they can only get so close to the mystery at the core of it before words fail them.

Therefore the Calgary-based painter Susan Menzies may tell us that she was interested in the social history behind the porcelain dog figurines that are sometimes named for their place of origin in Staffordshire, England, but which she calls by their old Scottish vernacular name, wally dugs.

She likes dogs and she was interested in the expressions on these small figurines’ faces as she trolled the Internet, looking at online auction images, which formed her sources for painting. But to painstakingly paint more than 30 highly detailed works, each of which took days in the studio—that cannot actually be explained.

Menzies’ works in this new series are tiny and have been grouped Victorian-style on one wall of the gallery space, echoing the aesthetic from the time and culture to which they refer. But Menzies’ dogs are startlingly modern as well. They have strange, very human-looking gazes and smiles, and they tend to loom large before the viewer, seeming almost to lift away from the wall surface as we gaze back at their little faces. What are they thinking?

Other ideas might occur to us as we continue to look, about the concept of pets to begin with, the notion of a dog’s faithfulness, and other cultural clichés.

Eventually we can forget we are looking at depictions of figurines, and the images start to look like paintings of real dogs. How weird is that?

At the same time, after a while we can forget about the dogs altogether and just focus on the paint handling, the varied backgrounds, and other formal, technical aspects of the work.

Menzies is in mid-career and has plenty of painting experience under her belt. She has worked in all sorts of sizes and on a large variety of subjects over the years. She completed this group of works just in time for this exhibition, which is the first time the paintings have ever been shown.

Menzies was born in Edmonton in 1959. She earned a BFA from the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1981, and an MFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art in Design in Halifax in 1988. She has been teaching at Calgary’s Alberta College of Art and Design in the painting area since 1997.

Susan Menzies: Wally Dugs runs at the Kelowna Art Gallery until Oct. 16.