New York is still reeling from a feline-filled art season, which launched in a big way with “The Cat Show” at White Columns over the summer, followed by the Brooklyn Museum’s celebration of Egyptian cat deities, and the Metropolitan Museum’s cat-centric Balthus retrospective, while Los Angeles has been left out of the cat art cuddle party — but not for much longer. On January 23, 2014, an exhibition titled simply “Cat” and featuring works by Tracey Emin, Justin Mortimer, Guy Denning, Shepard Fairey, FAILE, Christian Furr, Tim Biskup, and more will open at an as-yet unspecified location, with a portion of proceeds from sale of the artworks going to the Stray Cat Alliance. We spoke to curator Susan Michals about her plans for the exhibition, and how much help she got from her feline muse.
What inspired you to put together this exhibition?
I’ve been working for some time as a journalist in art and culture, and have always been a cat person (but not to the extent of “Grey Gardens”). About a year ago, I started working with a friend on doing something cat inspired for a website; I thought it would be a great idea to combine my love of art with cats.
What did you think of “The Cat Show” at White Columns this summer, and how will your exhibition be different (aside, that is, from just having different pieces of cat art)?
I wish I had been in NYC to see that show. I have corresponded with Rhonda Lieberman as to her concept of “cats in residence,” which sounded like an interesting approach. Their focus was really adoption, and none of the works at White Columns appeared to have been for sale. Everything in our show will be.
Thematically, we are different in the sense that we are celebrating felines for their role as creative instigators and inspiration — not just companions. There are many factors of the cat persona that go into this show. First, they are forever unpredictable; you can never second-guess a cat, and they have the ultimate poker face. Secondly, their adroit physicality is a constant source of amazement; from their sinewy lines as they lie in the sun, to their calculated, methodically prowler moves as they prepare to pounce.
Then there’s the attitude, a catch-22 in the truest sense, in that we love them for all their cuddliness; but at the same time for their unmistakable inclination of superiority. They can be aloof and affectionate, but always have their own agenda — and unlike our canine friends, they will not buckle under the threat of a guilt trip. The Egyptians frequently aligned them with the gods, like Bastet, the goddess of warfare. In artistic masterpieces throughout history, cats are frequently present showcasing them sometimes as companion, or sometimes as something deeper symbolically. By the way, some of the artists involved have readily admitted they are “dog” people, or even allergic to cats, but they cannot negate the fact that felines are great fodder for artistic inspiration.
What is your favorite piece of cat art from art history?
I love everything by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, but I also really appreciate the works by Louis Wain, where you can see the trajectory of his schizophrenia beginning to take hold as his felines get crazier and crazier. And I adore “Sleeping Cat” by Renoir.
How many cats do you have, and did you consult with them/him/her on your curatorial decisions?
I have one cat, Miss Kitty Pretty Girl, a Maine Coon. She is my muse. But she transmits her opinions via osmosis, as she naps 23 hours a day.
“Cat” opens January 23, 2014 in Los Angeles.
— Benjamin Sutton
(Top image: Frank Stefanko, “The Lookout,” courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery; bottom image: Charlotte Dumas, “Poes”; Courtesy “Cat,” courtesy of the artist.)