I’ll admit to being fascinated by the art of Miss Chanda-Leah, a Canadian expressionist working in watercolors. While her execution and technique may seem unexceptional — if I may be allowed my keen critical judgment — allowances can and must be made, since the artist is a dog. This is not intended as a slight on the individual’s deportment or appearance. She really is a dog.
“Chanda Loves to Paint!,” it says on the web site devoted to her work. When applied to four-legged artistes, who would quibble that use of the exclamation point is ever unwarranted?
Her biographer elaborates: “By holding a brush in her mouth, Chanda is able to paint some very unusual abstracts. She uses different size brushes to achieve these ‘creative’ pictures.”
The site includes a portrait of the artist as a rather stout toy poodle. She’s photographed with a brush clamped within her jaws, poised before an easel; Georgia O’Keeffe, eat your heart out. Here’s Chanda pursuing her muse, rather than the usual things her species might chase, such as a cat, a mailman, or a speeding Buick.
The Chanda collection numbers some 64 works, executed in 2005 and 2006. That may not be so impressive, adjusted for the usual measure of one dog year equaling seven human years. But, even so, go ahead and call that a prolific output. Most dogs never get around to painting a single opus, much as they might hang around outside Starbucks, trying to impress the opposite sex by yapping about their creative intentions. Let these art-school poseurs talk; Chandra’s a doer.
Audacious and vivid are two fitting adjectives for Miss Chandra’s canvases, which demonstrate a capricious abandon in the use of shape and color. That’s a puzzle, since dogs reportedly don’t see colors, or at least not the same colors as us humans. However, when the subject is canine art projects, mysteries abound. That’s something to remember while struggling to understand Chanda’s ability to sign her name to her works, both in a big looping human-like script, and with a tiny black paw-print. We may assume that Chanda’s owner, trainer, and intellectual-property manager, Mrs. Sharon Robinson of Hamilton, Ont., may have assisted in this regard.
Handy though she appears with a set of brushes, I couldn’t help but observe that Chadra’s thick, lustrous coat of fur might have offered an alternative means of applying paint to canvas. Given this advantage, along with the unrestrained enthusiasm typical to the poodle breed, we might ask what impulse held the artist back from using her very body to passionately slam pigment to board, a la Jackson Pollock. I’ve witnessed my own toy poodle engrossed in using her flipside to grind a potato into the carpet of my parents’ living room, and regarded it as an inspired form of performance art. Alas, Chanda is no longer in a position to offer career guidance to up-and-coming dog aesthetes.
The Canadian art scene was dealt a staggering loss on June 20, 2006, when Chanda-Leah died at age 12, “due to complications that led to heart failure.” Her unnamed 64th and final artistic creation was completed only four days before her death, imbuing that work, and her entire gallery, with a special poignancy.
It’s a sad occasion when any dog has her day — or any artist. There’s a scene in a novel I just finished reading wherein a dog is struck by a car and killed on a rain-slicked street-corner, and the guilt-stricken driver hands the dog’s owner a large stack of cash before driving off. The inconsolable owner sits on the curb, beside the lifeless form of his pet, and in his despair arranges the bills on the wet sidewalk to trace the outline of a dog’s body. This vignette, which occurs in a not-especially-good piece of fiction by a man named Connolly, seemed to me astonishingly moving and poetic. Likely Chanda has never attempted the art-form of creative writing, but I have, with unsatisfactory results, and I’ll tell you that one eye-popping passage surrounded by three hundred pages of forgettable prose is always going to be something to strive for.
As much as I’m fond of dogs, I can’t manage the conclusion that it’s easier to lose an artist than a pet. For example, I was unexpectedly saddened to hear of the death of the Canadian painter William Ronald a decade back, although I never met the fellow, was put off by his television program, and didn’t think his art was up to much. I don’t know why I cared about the end of Bill Ronald. Life short; art long — something like that? Could be.
If you love dogs, and art, and art that depicts dogs, and if you can put up with the company of human artists who will paint portraits of dogs playing poker, you still may not know what to make of art ostensibly created by a dog. I’m reminded of a stunt undertaken by another toy poodle once housed by my in-laws. A crafts-minded member of the household was hooking a rug, and the dog took the occasion of being left alone to deconstruct the effort, somehow undoing each stitch. Then the dog arranged each strand of wool into a separate pile, accurately sorted according to color. When the rug-hooker returned home, the dog could not have been more proud, glancing at the ruined handiwork, catching the eye of the artisan, and grinning the way nihilist poodles do. This strikes me as a more natural undertaking for the canine bent on creative expression. Anti-art is fringe, but art nonetheless, and in the right hands, or paws, it can be pure, strong and beautiful.