Leroy Johnson, Grizzly Grizzly, Philadelphia (Artforum)

Dogs have played a supporting role in human culture since prehistory, serving as partners and protectors at home, work, and war; the unwitting subjects of medical and psychological abuse; and proxies onto whom we project human emotion and behavior. Explicitly drawing on a range of sources—Greek mythology, pop lyrics, biblical descriptions of Armageddon—eighty-one-year-old artist and activist Leroy Johnson focuses on canines in his densely worked and reworked charcoal and mixed-media drawings on view in “Dogs/Walls/Dark Energy.”  

Five large-scale works on canvas depict the animals roaming through cityscapes with bombed-out buildings, razor wire border walls, and plumes of smoke rising into the sky, heralding destruction. Top Dog and The Significance of Blood (all works 2018) portray feral-looking dogs prowling alone or milling around in packs, baring their teeth as if in newly in charge. Canines with human-looking biceps and triceps strain against taut diagonal leashes in War Dog; in Rites of Atonement and the small-scale “Security” series, they mope with muzzled snouts, as if trussed in gas masks. Three more tear at each other’s throats in Guard Dogs 1.  

The seriality of these works creates a sense of story, one perhaps responding allegorically to the general sense of anxiety in contemporary American politics and society. They’re reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s ten-part classical war story, Fifty Days at Iliam, 1978, or the cell structure of a graphic novel, in which characters move through tightly enclosed scenes. Meanwhile, centered on the room’s rear wall and rendered in opulent jewel tones, the mixed-media painting The Unbearable Lightness of Being evokes stained glass and Stations of the Cross, the Catholic devotional images illustrating Christ’s last day on earth and the possibility of redemption.