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VISUAL ARTS ‌ Puppy Love

This weekend is what it's all about for a local gallery that's all dogs, all the time

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Beth Carlson, Sporting Artist
On view Feb. 16-Mar. 18
Artist's reception Thurs. Feb. 16, 5-7:30 p.m.
Dog Art Dealer
4 North Atlantic Wharf
577-5500 or www.dogartdealer.com

You'll find the Dog Art Dealer in a small office space on North Atlantic Wharf down by the new City Gallery at Waterfront Park, amidst a series of new condos built right up to the street. It's a shiny-new, very urban side of town: cool shadows, quiet cobblestones, a bit lonely.

Gallery visitors are greeted by a coy Chihuahua the size of a small horse — a painting by Roger Henry, who, as it turns out, is dog portraitist to the stars. (Director Gus Van Sant is a client.)

Last week, owner Jaynie Spector was getting ready to hang a new show just in time for Charleston's biggest dog-per-capita tourist event, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. Was this the calm before the storm?

"It's not that calm," Spector says. "I'm happy if you think I look calm."

Spector looks like a real-life version of Brenda Strong, the actress who plays the dead narrator on Desperate Housewives (and also candy bar heiress Sue Ellen Mishke on Seinfeld). At any given time this weekend, she'll find her tiny gallery packed with scads of Wildlifers. It's a nice bump in business, she says. Plus her cocker spaniel Lucy likes all the tummy rubs.

Yes, the paintings at Dog Art Dealer feature dogs almost exclusively, some of which look like photos from Field and Stream, but it does hold a few surprises.

Spector cut her teeth in the upper echelon of the art world. She studied at Sotheby's in London, worked at Christie's in New York, rubbed elbows with folks like Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Her space features a work by her favorite contemporary painter from her early days in Manhattan, Robert Zakanitch.

"Back in the '70s, he was one of the pattern artists, a reaction to the minimalist movement," she says. "He would do these huge canvases of floral wallpaper."

Zakanitch has work in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of Art. His gouache ("Chihuahua," $4,500) at Dog Art Dealer is from his Aggressive Goodness Series — simple images of dogs which Spector explains were a reaction to negative, "underworld" energy in the art world. (Specifically, the Brooklyn Museum of Art's 2000 show Sensation, which featured a controversial Madonna made of elephant dung and nudie-mag cutouts.)

There are other hip pieces at Dog Art. Rachelle Oatman's anthropomorphic hounds have human bodies and slender, furry hands, and wear outfits like gay-biker duds or a striped shirt and tie.

Not that the camouflaged crowd should worry they'll find much in the way of envelope-pushing work here. There is no pug submerged in urine, no cubist "Collie Descending a Staircase."

The SEWE-timed show features Beth Carlson's representational paintings of sporting dogs in action. You can smell the dew on the grass and the shotgun smoke in the air.

And one might even get some hunting tips with all the art lessons. Spector says she is a hunting "spectator" — apparently it's not just a participatory sport — but her assistant Trish Northington hunts boars on her parents' ranch in Texas, using cur dogs.

"It's not for sport, it's for maintenance," she says. Feral pigs love to root up her parents' turf farm. "My dad will wake me up at night and ask me to hold the flashlight while he shoots from the porch."

Unlike, say, a costume shop in October, Dog Art Dealer doesn't live and die by SEWE. The bulk of Spector's business is finding portraitists for people's pets, serving as a liaison between a nationwide collection of artists and dogs as far-flung as Italy.

Local artists include Marty Whaley Adams, Lese Corrigan, and Faith Cameron Semmes. Prices range from Delaney McDonough, who asks $600 per portrait, to Constance Coleman, who pulls $4,000 and insists on personally photographing her subjects. (Apparently in the dog portrait world, "sit — for 12 hours" is not a useful command.)

Originally from Tennessee, Spector held her first dog art show in Whitehouse, N.J., in October of 2001.

"It was a difficult time for our country," she says, "but we decided to go on with our exhibition. We felt like we could give people something else to think about."

Spector set up shop here in 2003; she and her husband Joe moved here for no reason other than they liked Charleston. They have a twelve-year-old son, Sean.

"Be sure and mention him," she says. "The last time someone did an article on the gallery they mentioned my dogs but not my son."

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