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Q&A: Painter M.A. Peers on Soviet space dogs, beater Christmas trees and what art can learn from dogs

They line the walls of the gallery, regal in bearing, majestic in attitude, wet of nose.

They are the dogs of the Soviet space program — Laika, Snezhinka, Ugolyok, et al. — and they are the subject of a series of portraits by the Los Angeles-based painter M.A. Peers, on view at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery in downtown Los Angeles.

If the concept seems familiar, it’s because you may have encountered similar works by the artist in a different guise. Peers painted several resplendent portraits of Soviet space dogs for Culver City’s Museum of Jurassic Technology more than a dozen years ago. And it is a subject she is now returning to in her sixth solo exhibition at Rosamund Felsen.

Beyond the dog portraits, the sprawling exhibition features the artist’s wide gamut of work. One series consists of a number of beguiling abstractions inspired by the tones, shapes and forms of Giorgione’s 16th century masterpiece, “The Tempest” — one of the Renaissance’s weirder canvases. (On one side of the painting stands a man in military-style finery; on the other, a woman nurses an infant. The roiling skies above deliver lightning.)

In between are abstractions of Christmas trees and gestural studies of purebred dogs. Dogs, it turns out, are a running theme in the artist’s life and work: She has a whippet named Portfolio that she presents at dog shows.

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Peers took time to chat in this edited conversation about how her interests intersect: from 18th century British painting to canine nose work (a demonstration of which she will stage at Felsen’s gallery on Sunday).

Early on in your art career, you became known for making paintings of dogs on collaged scraps of upholstery that you harvested from old furniture. How did dogs become part of your art-making?

I’ve been involved with dogs my whole life. I was obsessed with dogs. I wanted to be a dog. I got my first dog at 6, a mixed-breed. I started going to dog training classes when I was 10, and I started showing dogs when I was 11. I didn’t have a purebred dog yet, so I would borrow other people’s that they brought for me to learn on. The first dog I had was a Basenji — a totally weird dog. And the first one I ever went in the ring with was an Irish terrier. It’s inexplicable, the obsession. It’s very deep. I love looking at them and interacting with them. They’re just fascinating and beautiful to me.

I read in a profile on Art21 that you came to dogs artistically because the painter Linda Day told you to “paint the most embarrassing thing you can think of.” Why were dogs so embarrassing to you?

I’ve always drawn dogs, even before I had them. I even started painting dog portraits for people with show dogs. But it wasn’t until high school that I had this kind of weird breakthrough that I wanted to be an artist. But I knew that painting dogs that looked like dogs was not really “art.” So I hid that when I went to art school, a BFA program in Canada.

[Linda Day] liked my abstract assemblages, the ones made out of upholsteries I put together. But I didn’t know what to paint on them. She said, “Paint the most embarrassing thing.” Well, my deep primitive art as a child would be the most embarrassing. That was the dogs.

How did you come to paint the Soviet space dogs for the Museum of Jurassic Technology?

That project came about because I was working at the Jurassic for several years as a collaborating artist. David Wilson [the artist who runs the museum] has always had an obsession with space dogs because he’s obsessed with all things Russian. So he basically commissioned me. [It] was a great opportunity to paint these dogs as straight-up dogs.

The dogs on upholstery that I was doing were always very tightly connected to the material they were painted on. The upholstery conceptually dictated what kind of dog would go on it. (Though most people don’t see that. They just see the dog.) But this would be different. I knew that people would be interested in the anthropomorphic part of the space dogs. They want the narrative.

Now you’re revisiting the space dogs for your show at Rosamund Felsen.

I always wanted to revisit the space dogs. They are really about looking at other paintings. When I went to do the space dogs, particularly the Jurassic set, I was looking at [18th century] British stuff like [Joshua] Reynolds and [Thomas] Gainsborough, mostly Gainsborough.

I related to the paint and the romantic quality of that world and the idea of his dogs and people in nature. I used those as a model. He was one of the few painters that painted dogs individually. There’s these other guys like [George] Stubbs and [Edwin Henry] Landseer who did dog portraits. But Gainsborough’s were more like a person in a landscape.

Speaking of landscape, how did you arrive at Giorgione’s “The Tempest” as a source for a series? It’s a long way from dogs.

The Giorgione was a found thing. I wanted to just look at something and work from it. When I teach I try to get students to rework old paintings and they’re remarkably resistant. [Laughs.] But I’m like, God there are such great things you can get out of there. It’s not copying. It’s these compositions and structures that are available.

Really, I selected it out of desperation. I’ve been moving and most of my stuff is in boxes, but I had this one book by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has this folder of prints in the front, and one of the prints was “The Tempest.” And I stopped at that painting because I didn’t really like it but I was compelled by it. So I just started working from it. And as I worked from it, I thought, what is going on in this painting? What is this nude woman doing here breast feeding this infant and who is this guy and what’s with this title? It’s this really inexplicable painting.

I also chose landscape because of what I’ve been doing with the dogs. I’ve been doing nose work and I’ve been doing searches with dogs. This is how bomb dogs are trained. When you do the searches, you become aware of space in a really strange way. It’s very strangely formally related to things that go on in drawings and painting — it’s about establishing the order of space.

What about the abstractions of Christmas trees — some of which look rather dejected?

Yes, they are! [Laughs.] I do things with students, like let them work from a still life and that was one of the still lifes I picked. It was something that I’d been looking at for a long time and it was this pink Christmas tree my husband, [artist and critic] Doug [Harvey], found in the trash. It was all bent and mangled. And he brought this thing home and put it up as a Christmas tree. And I always liked the color and the texture of it. It’s like this cadmium pink and it’s really plastic-y. And it has these lights on it that no longer work and the wire is the same pink.

He’d put it in the house in December. Then when we were done, he’d throw it back out in the yard, where it’d get weathered some more. It was this beater tree. So I took it to my studio and started painting from it. It’s gesture paintings. It’s about movement and getting the mark right.

So what can the art world learn from dogs?

I think a lot! They can teach us about experience — about relating to the world directly. It’s direct physical contact with the world. You see them learning and figuring stuff out. They’re playing, but they’re so invested in it. And it’s all so instinctual. It’s that experiential way of interacting, rather than through words or thinking. Do it first. That’s what I take away from it.

“M.A. Peers” is on view at Rosamund Felsen Gallery through Jan. 2. At 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 27, the artist will give a gallery talk about dogs, her work and the making of landscape. It will include a live demonstration of canine nose work in the gallery. Seating is extremely limited; RSVP required to attend to rosamund@rosamundfelsen.com. 1923 S. Santa Fe Ave., downtown Los Angeles, rosamundfelsen.com.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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