Joanna Braithwaite's art is constantly enjoyable, and accompanied by wry humour. By concentrating on animals but treating them in an anthropomorphic way, the artist is able to puncture and deflate many of the pomposities of human life. She enables us to view humanity as a theatre of the absurd every bit as pointed as the plays of Brecht or the writing of Kafka, but with a lighthearted humour. Simultaneously, her works question our own relationship with the world around us, and also our relationships with our closest non-human allies and companions.
Braithwaite's images are depicted with painterly brushwork that brings to mind the portraiture of the great Dutch masters. That her subjects are not people is simultaneously irrelevant, in that they are still studies of character-filled figures, and highly relevant, in that normal societal hierarchies are deliberately subverted and inverted. We see animals in the poses which we might normally expect from human subjects, drawing out the unseen features and idiosyncracies of activities which we normally do not consider because of their quotidian nature.
The artist's deadpan approach to her subjects allows us to question what we regard as the natural order of things. She holds a mirror up to our "civilised" way of life. Braithwaite carefully walks a tightrope between the real and the surreal, childlike joy and wistful sadness.1 It would only need a slight change for the works to drift into bathos, yet it is a line that Braithwaite navigates magnificently.
In this current series of works, the artist was inspired by one of those everyday moments of seeing a dog in a vehicle looking like it was a human driver or passenger. On researching the popularity of breeds of dogs and models of car, she noticed analogies, as the popularity of both have changed regularly and often simultaneously over the years as fashions come and go. An individual’s choice of dog breed and car model can often reflect their social status and aspirations, and even aspects of their culture.2
Braithwaite started deliberately pairing certain dogs with certain cars to reflect this shared history, such as collies and camper-vans, both popular during the 1960s and 1970s. In other works, such as Cut and Polish, the dogs and the owner naturally go together, reflecting the long-held belief that pets start to resemble, and certainly often reflect, their owners. There is also a deliberate returning to specific designs, as if we are seeing generations of dogs occupying the same space. This is particularly noticeable in Joy Ride and In Dog Years #6, and Come-Bye and In Dog Years #5. This adds an extra layer of poignancy and aching wistfulness to these compelling works.