The Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) in Culver City has a permanent exhibit devoted to the Sputnik space dogs, dogs found on Moscow streets, trained, dressed in dog-sized space suits then sent into orbit by the Soviet space program late in the 1950s and early in the 1960s. The exhibit features close-to-life oil paintings of the five who never returned and, if you've been there, you know the corridor they're hung is eerie. The dogs seem to glow but everything else is dim.
When Jon Bernad visited a few years ago and entered the corridor, he was taken aback by the figure of an actual dog coming toward him. “I think it's Werner Herzog who talks about coming over a hill and seeing windmills and not even understanding what he's seeing,” says Bernad. He felt like that and wasn't sure the dog was real at first. She is, she's named Tula, and Bernad has been back to the MJT a few times since to see her. A few months ago, he took a photograph of her, lying still with legs sprawled below the depictions of the disappeared Sputnik dogs. It's now part of Bernad's growing Art Dogs series, portraits of dogs who spend their lives around art.
Bernad's project officially began this past summer when he launched the Art Dogs tumblr, but he started noticing dogs who live with art almost as soon as he started visiting L.A. galleries and museums circa 2007. Then, he had just moved to L.A., his full time job was to keep two French bulldogs company and he had just befriended French curator Isabelle Le Normand. They were learning to navigate the city together. The dogs were familiar when the rest of the art world wasn't.
“For me, it was a way of becoming comfortable with places in this city,” Bernad says. Around 2011, he realized he should keep a record of all the dogs he'd gotten to know and, though he didn't have a camera, he would borrow friends' iPhones and email pictures to himself. “It's a good access point and linked to intimacy,” he says. “It's almost like a way to go deeper into a person, but a way that's socially acceptable.”
Halfway through 2012, he acquired a camera of his own and started showing up to ask to photograph dogs he already knew about.
He remembers arriving at a Santa Monica gallery and asking if Latte, the dog, was available. When he explained his project, the gallerist asked if he could come back the upcoming Wednesday at 1:30, because then Latte would have had a bath. And he's found that, at least in his mind, the dogs become “extensions of their environments.” There's Lulu at Regen Projects, who's graceful like royalty. “I don't know anything about Shaun Regen, but 'Regen' sounds like 'regal.'” Artist Shelley Holcomb's dog Oscar, whom he's photographed, has a wrinkled, chubby face like the faces of the babies Holcomb paints. In his photo of collector Danny First's dog Nacho, the hairless dog sits on a leather chair below a portrait by Kehinde Wiley of an white-clad woman surrounded by stylized foilage. It was Nacho's last portrait, and “it feels like he's ascending,” says Bernad.
In November, when a Finnish journalist contacted him to ask about Art Dogs, Bernad told her Los Angeles inspired the project. Her article (published in Finnish, translated by Google) reads, “When [Jon Bernad] moved to Los Angeles he noticed that the dogs are accepted in surprising places. For example, antique shops, museums…” In a lecture Bernad gave via Skype to a class in France, taught by Isabelle Le Normand, he explained, “one of my favorite aspects about the Los Angeles art scene is the phenomenon of Art Dogs,” and that “L.A. is particularly well-suited to art dogs” because of a) the weather (with no rain or snow, you can brings dogs around all year long), b) the large spaces (it's not crowded, so there is more room for dogs) and c) transportation (most people drive, and it's easier to transport dogs in cars than on subways or city buses).
It's not that L.A. is the only place populated by art dogs — during the Art Basel fair there in December, Bernad cold called all the galleries he could find in Miami asking about dogs. He found 10-15 to photograph and met a collector famous on the Miami scene for bringing his dog everywhere; they rendezvoused late one night underneath an outdoor Claes Oldenburg sculpture of a broken bowl, and Bernad photographed while the collector urged his dog to do the “Marilyn Monroe look.” Bernad did the same thing on a recent visit to Washington D.C., where he also found 10-15 dogs. But still, he says, “I think of L.A. as the ideal situation.” He has photographed about 20 L.A. art dogs so far, and has yet to cold call L.A. art spaces, and he might never do so. “I don't want to feel I've exhausted my resources.”