Chaz John (WINNEBAGO TRIBE OF NEBRASKA, MISSISSIPPI BAND CHOCTAW, EUROPEAN) paints a lot of rez dogs. His works have names like Rez Dog Fights Turkey Vulture to Protect Fry Bread and Rez Dog Mother and Puppies. Lately he’s been busy at the easel creating dog-themed paintings for his second solo show, REZ DOGS II, at the Ellsworth Gallery in Santa Fe.
“I’ve always been a fan of dogs. I always had them around when I was younger,” says John, who grew up in Topeka, Kansas (loitering a lot, he says), but now resides in Santa Fe, where he recently completed a bachelor of fine arts in paint- ing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. “This rez-dog project really stemmed from my own rez dog, Eddy Spagetts. I think in a way I’ve been making work for him and other dogs I’ve had. The subject of animals can appeal to our most primal desire to understand something about our nature because animals can hold an indirect light to ourselves.”
John often paints rez dogs in the hues and values of the canine visual spectrum—from black and grays to light blues and yellows. “I thought it would be funny to make work for a species other than humans,” he says. “I wanted to subvert the idea of who art is made for by making it for creatures that humans often think less of in a space like an art gallery that is so steeped in elitism. And in this case, these feral dogs are humanized and treated as heroic figures battling against the condition that they are set in, overcoming the negative odds of survival that were set in motion by humans.”
John recently became interested in Victorian animal portraiture and began poring over the work of different Victorian animal artists, including Edwin Landseer and early Flemish animalier Frans Snyders. A portrait of a dog is very accessible, he finds. But just because it’s easy to understand doesn’t mean it can’t be imbued with allegory.
“You just can’t get more colonizing than that Victorian stuff, and for me, it’s a repeating symbol of occupation and its imagery,” John says. “I didn’t grow up on the rez, and generally consider myself a Native man who just barely skipped the bullet to full-blown assimilation. My family and I would make visits to the rez on occasion, and the one thing I always remembered was the dogs there, running in packs. And maybe this project is my own lens on those things.”
In his new show, the paintings show a richer and more dramatic color palette — with compositions based on Victorian feasts and hunting scenes—and have become more visceral, with more surreal imagery than the Victorian originals. The canvases have also grown in size: Three of the works are roughly 6 feet tall and 8 feet long.
John has also been getting into ceramics lately: “I’ve been building different slip molds based on plaster dog fig- ures I’ve found, then combining them together with other casts of fry bread and Victorian pedestals, all poured in porcelain, and then painting them with china paint, really hitting that Victorian nail on the head.”
As for the contemporary inspiration for his artistic riff- ing on the old Victorian style, John draws from virtually everything around him in the West. “I really pull creativity from everywhere, even those stranger experiences out here,” he says. “One time I met this crazy Caddo lady out on a back road, and she had probably 15 or so rez dogs with her in an RV truck. We ate some brisket and we talked about addiction for a while. When the dogs would wander off too close to the road, she’d call them all back with a shot- gun. Maybe I’m making things for them, too.”
— Dana Joseph
REZ DOGS II will be on view August 9 through September 2 at the Ellsworth Gallery in Santa Fe. ellsworthgallery.com,
Rez Dog Fights Turkey Vulture to Protect Fry Bread, Acrylic on Canvas, 66 x 60 in, 2019.