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Art: A tasty dog treat, and African art 'of color'

Ordinarily, an exhibition of dog photographs would not be cause for celebration. Too often dogs are anthropomorphized, dressed in silly costumes and made to perform ridiculous stunts, just so their owners or other misguided souls can record their humiliation for posterity.

Ordinarily, an exhibition of dog photographs would not be cause for celebration. Too often dogs are anthropomorphized, dressed in silly costumes and made to perform ridiculous stunts, just so their owners or other misguided souls can record their humiliation for posterity.

Dogs often do act like humans; they are, after all, supposed to be man's (and woman's) best friend. This isn't sufficient excuse to treat them as if they were human, but people do so anyway, which is why the planet is awash in cutesy-wootsey doggie snaps.

The French-born American photographer Elliott Erwitt, who will turn 80 in two months, has been making pictures of dogs since the mid-1940s, even before he became a professional. He has even published a book, Dog Dogs, which not coincidentally is the title of his exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.

Although Erwitt has been a member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency since 1953, his isn't a name the general public should be expected to recognize. He has traveled the world on assignment for various magazines, and since 1970, has made feature films and documentaries.

In the course of his wanderings, Erwitt photographed dogs as he came upon them, usually outdoors - on the street, in parks or at the beach - but sometimes in other public situations, such as a restaurant in Brussels and a dog show in New York.

All of the more than 60 black-and-white prints made between 1946 and 2000 are candid, or appear to be. Nowhere did I detect the slightest hint that Erwitt had staged any of the scenes, even when the dogs appeared to be performing. The punch in his photos comes from unusual camera angles and amusing but random juxtapositions - a smiling woman and her snarling dog, a puffed-up poodle next to its comparably bouffanted handler at a dog show.

There are lots of smiles in this show, and moments when we recognize behavior that we might have experienced with our own dogs. There is genuine camaraderie, sly but innocent humor, and abundant evidence that dogs regularly express distinctive personalities. Most of Erwitt's dogs, regardless of where and when they were photographed, are lovable, but not in a way that makes one embarrassed to be enjoying these photos.

"Dog Dogs" is admittedly a meringue of an exhibition, a warm-weather divertissement tooled for broad appeal. Yet it also drives home an important point, that it's possible to make photographs of a gravely cliched subject, and over a period of decades, without descending into sentimentality or cuteness. Erwitt presents dogs doing what they do every day as a normal slice of life, not as vaudeville. Bravo for him.

The color of culture. "Color," the companion exhibition at Michener, is a bit trickier to read. The title implies an examination of how artists use color, or how color functions in art, but neither is the case. "Color" is about how 10 African American artists draw on their heritage as "people of color" to create two- and three-dimensional art resonant with African cultural memories and values.

Five of the artists were invited to participate by the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, which organized the show. The other five were selected through a national competition. Some you might recognize. Tina Brewer, Beverly Buchanan, Nick Cave, Robert Peppers and Joyce Scott are the invitees; Sharif Bey, June Gaddy, Cheryl Riley, Lydia S. Thompson and Michele S. Turner emerged from the competition.

All are presented as craft artists, but this too is misleading. Some use traditional craft techniques and materials, but the point of the show isn't craft per se, it is material expressiveness. Although the artists work in ceramic, fiber and wood, this show might have been designed to demonstrate that the categorizations "craft" and "mainstream art" have come to be essentially meaningless. This art is as mainstream as art gets.

One judges this exhibition instead on how effectively it evokes African American cultural identity and memories of African ancestry. On that score, regardless of individual inspiration, there's no mistaking that "artists of color" produced the more than 30 works on view.

Bey's gargantuan necklaces of ceramic beads, which resemble sculpture more than jewelry, intend to explore contemporary black racial consciousness, especially as it's expressed by urban youth through "bling" and "ice," street slang for jewelry. Peppers explains that his impressive cruciform stelae, which resemble monuments, were inspired by African American "memory jugs," embellished with mementos of the deceased.

Buchanan's small, deliberately crude house sculptures, some painted and some raw wood, celebrate the shack communities of rural America. Gaddy revives memory by copying family and historical photographs onto period dresses, themselves artifacts of black American history.

Turner refers to Africa directly through her carved and painted gourds. Perhaps the most evocative piece in the show, especially because of its title, is Brewer's lively quilt I Come From a Long Line of Big Boned Black Women.

"Color" delivers much of what we have come to expect from culturally oriented African American art - use of found objects and decorative panache, seen especially in Cave's fabric construction, Plot, which is an 8-foot wall-hung disc, and in Scott's ethereal beaded constructions. There's a strong totemic quality to the show, exemplified by Riley's small box sculptures encrusted with beads and shells.

One thing there isn't a lot of is effusive color. It isn't entirely absent, but for the most part the work doesn't generate emotional voltage from the kind of vibrant color that makes African textiles so life-affirming. Perhaps that's a plus; why should artists "of color" be stereotyped as artists who indulge in color for its own sake?

Art: Gone to the Dogs

"Elliott Erwitt: Dog Dogs" continues at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, thrugh Aug. 31. "Color" continues through July 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 Saturdays, and noon to 5 Sundays. Admission is $6.50 general, $6 for visitors 60 and older, and $4 for students with current ID. Information: 215-340-9800 or