If there's one thing artist Chaz Johns (Winnebago, Mississippi Band Choctaw and European) proved after his residency at the Institute of American Indian Arts last year, it's that fine art need not be humorless. John's series Rez Dogs merged his training from the school, Victorian canine and hunting painting and a dose of tongue-in-cheek subversion alongside a figurative and narrative dissection of the concept of rez dogs. But what exactly is a rez dog? On the one hand, they can be defined simply as strays, solo dogs and packs of dogs who live on and around Native reservations across the country and a bizarre mix of resourceful, tank-like creature, adorable animal and sometimes violent, mythic beasts. "Growing up, I always remember having these dogs run at you, these packs of rez dogs, and being overwhelmed and excited by it," John recalls. "Because I'm mixed, European and Native, I think that over time, focusing on this project and realizing it, it was indigenizing Victorian English paintings. Maybe it's my own lens, my own blend of those things, how I saw rez dogs and what I feel from them, but the whole project is also based on my dog—I just thought it would be so funny to make paintings just for him, his species, subvert the project. That's why they're hung so low." Indeed, at John's first showing at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art, and at the current exhibit Rez Dogs II at Ellsworth Gallery, John installs the dog portraiture pieces—hysterical renditions of various canines presented in ornate, oval faux gold frames—down low along the wall, at eye level for the dogs themselves. Elsewhere, in larger pieces, John continues the lampooning of Victorian work, paying homage but also deconstructing and indigenizing the form while examining the moods, lives and even visceral violence of dogs. John even sticks to the main colors dogs can perceive: "Blue and grey and muddy brown," he says. Take the piece "A Frybread Deer," a roughly 5-by-5 foot piece that finds ferocious mutts tackling a stag. In the background, clouds and mountains swirl atop earthy Southwest lands; in the air, sunflowers waft, though John says they're representative of an earlier genus of the flower long-since lost to the massive, singular blooms we know today. The flowers find their way to other pieces as well, like "Two Rez Dogs and a Coyote." "Sunflowers were domesticated in this area," John explains. "They grew into the big mammoths we see and are used in ceremonies. Symbols like that, I think, are very powerful." Symbolically, John says, the use of the sunflowers is quite similar to that of the rez dogs themselves, and both are meant to portray or at least question his own feelings surrounding his identity. "I think it was … coming more to terms with the European side of myself," he tells SFR. "These dogs specifically are the indigenous dogs from this area, and they were the first pack animal, the first beasts of burden for a lot of tribes. Then the European breeds, these genetically altered creatures, came over, and there was this inter-mixing; these dogs are almost living in two worlds at the same time, and that's kind of the way a lot of Indigenous people see themselves." John also added ceramics to the mix for the Ellsworth Gallery exhibit, a first in his career. Learning from and working with master ceramicist Daisy Quezada at IAIA, he crafted molds to work with porcelain, "a huge challenge because it's touchy clay," he says. Similar to the paintings, John used a restrictive color palette of blue, yellow and muddy brown. The dogs themselves are represented in a sheer, porcelain white, the colors appearing as dots and smudges across their bodies. Included are cans of Vienna sausages, both outside and hidden within the pieces, as a bit of a joke. "It's funny," he says, "but it's also about survival. Either way, if you get hungry, you can always break the sculptures and eat the sausages."
And then, at the center of the exhibit, stands the one piece not for sale—the skeleton of a rez dog itself acquired from a friend at Zuni Pueblo. John regularly changes out dying sunflowers in the piece, and frybread slowly goes stale, curling up and in on itself. John says his ultimate goal for the piece is a permanent home at the The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in New York City. For now, though, it's his favorite. Sadly, however, the time of Rez Dogs is coming to an end. John has a number of commissions left to complete, but says he's ready for his next project—something to do with the Civil War and the South, though he's staying tight-lipped for now. Either way, the time to see the work of Chaz Johns is now.
Rez Dogs II:
Through Oct. 15. Ellsworth Gallery,
215 E Palace Ave.,