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When a Dog can be a Toucan

by Karen Moe

When a dog can be a toucan, we begin to know what we are. Like Leonora Carrington’s surrealist conflation of humans and all other life, in one of his always untitled portraits, Sanitago Ydañez plays an inter-species song, although he leaves out the human, along with the surrealism.

Santiago Ydañez, Untitled
Santiago Ydañez, Untitled, 2017

Carrington enjoyed branches growing out of heads as women had tea with a murder of crows in elaborate settings with low hanging moons; but Ydañez gives us but a most faithful representation of a dog, albeit one with a toucan beak stuck on its face. The dog could be uncomfortable, confused as it appears somewhat muzzled. But he is all-good with it, apparently, is upright and noble as he gazes towards something we are not privy to in the other world of beyond the frame. And yet, despite the calm, the possibility of a muzzle is still very real as the painting clamps down all discourse with a suffocating silence, one that maybe we deserve.

In 1975, French philosopher Hélène Cixous sardonically warned “Above all, don’t go into the forest.” It is dangerous there, unknowable, unconquerable, a space where things can’t always make sense, where boundaries overlap, where species merge and separate and merge again. Hélène didn’t really want to scare us away from our origins, though, quite the opposite: she wanted us to go back in. But she knows, in Western culture, the wilderness is that which must be kept out.

This named nameless painting has merged the most familiar of non-human species with one of the most unfamiliar. It’s safe to say that we all see at least a dog a day; however, coming upon a toucan is quite another matter. And yet, ironically, the toucan beak, even when detached from its body, is so familiar that we can immediately name it. Has the toucan, like man’s best friend, also been civilized through our designation of it as an intimate other, as existing in the Technicolor opacity of the exotic? Like the sculptural wilderness of the artist’s fastidious and frenetic brush strokes, the mundane dog is overlapped by, and perhaps even over-taken by, the exotic. In the world of the painting, the wilderness is both civilized and undone again ad infinitum.

But the dog does look ridiculous. Grace flirts with the absurd and the noble gaze can also be interpreted as a good boy doing what he is told. Santiago Ydañez’s “Untitled” (number irrelevant) is both a speciest transgression and a slapstick of “Hey look! That dog has a toucan beak stuck on its face!” Beyond language the dog/ toucan or toucan/ dog tells us that we are noble, we are absurd, we are civilized and we are wild and, in the end, we are all ‘untitled.’ But then, the painting may have nothing to do with us at all.

Karen Moe June 2018


Santiago Ydáñez was born in Puente de Genave, Jaen, Spain, 1969.

He has exhibited in different venues in Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Canada, Denmark, the United States, Norway and France. Winner of the ABC painting prize and the first Painting Prize in 2002 Caja Madrid. 

view his profile here


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