"Cat Art Show" Curator Susan Michals Talks About Cats, Art, and Inspiration
Cats make ideal art subjects. They're sleek and gorgeous. They're comical and cute. They're pensive and mysterious. They can be inspiring and terrifying. Since humans began to express themselves, cats have been portrayed as mythical dream creatures, symbols, and just as the loving, real-life companions they are. The ancient Egyptians included cats in hieroglyphics. Asian cultures created the Maneki Neko, or Fortune Cat. Cats have inspired cartoons (Sylvester, the Pink Panther, Felix) and comic strips (Calvin and Hobbes, Mutts, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse). Cats moved 20th-century artists -- see Salvador Dali's "Gala and the Tigers" for an example of terrifying, or Erte's letter L (he made the whole alphabet using leopards and women in different poses) for sleek and gorgeous.
Susan Michals has assembled 21st-century artists for an exhibition starting in January in Los Angeles, exploring cats' role as muse and inspiration. What's the exhibit called? Cat Art Show | Los Angeles. (Duh.) It features works of about 70 artists, including Shepard Fairey (best known for his propaganda-poster-inspired prints "OBEY" and "HOPE," the latter featuring Barack Obama) as well as Jenny Parks, Marc Dennis, Mercedes Helnwein, Charlotte Dumas, and the aptly named Christian Furr. (There's even a Nicholas Bowers, who I might be related to but can't say for sure.) There will be a video component from the Walker Art Center's Cat Video Film Festival. Part of the money from sales will go the Stray Cat Alliance of L.A.
I've known Susan for 20grumblesomething years, and I spoke to her recently about what moved her to curate Cat Art Show | Los Angeles. Samples of the works are interspersed with the interview questions and answers.
Catster: Why do an art show devoted to cats?
Susan Michals: You know that saying “Every dog has its day?” Now it’s the cat’s turn. Cats have been great fodder and inspiration for artists for centuries. I work primarily as an art journalist, and I felt there was an opportunity to capitalize on my experience and meld it with my love of cats. Plus, cats are top of mind these days on every site's list -- even Huffington Post now has a section entitled Huff Post Cats.
What role do cats play in your life? Do you live with any?
I’ve always had cats. When I was in high school in Sonoma County, California, we lived on an apple ranch on a couple of acres. We had a few cats that had simultaneous litters so I swear, at one time we must’ve had, like, 20 cats running around, with names such as Tom, Dick, and Harry, as well as Fatso, Puff, and Le Strange. So cats are part of my DNA I guess. Right now I have just one cat who is a Maine Coon -- her name is Miss Kitty Pretty Girl. She’s the boss for sure.
The Stray Cat Alliance of L.A. is the beneficiary of your show. What can you tell me about that group?
My cat and my dog are both rescues. When it came to choosing a beneficiary, I wanted to go with one that was strictly cat-based -- not cats and dogs. That really narrowed down my choices. I love the Stray Cat Alliance's Mission and Values, and when I contacted the group, the staff members were extremely proactive in supporting the show no matter how much or how little we managed to raise.
What about the time and other resources you've devoted to the show? Has it been a lot of work?
Fortunately, I have a really great network of friends and colleagues -- not just from my journalistic endeavors, but from being a fan of the art scene in general. That’s been uber helpful, especially since I have a day job, so working on this is relegated to evenings and weekends. You don’t realize how much work it really is until you get into the minutiae of an event like this -- it’s like herding cats!
People who have little experience with art might say, "I can't go to that. I don't know the first thing about art." What would you say to them?
I would say remember that quote (attributed to no one), “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.” You like cats? Great! You’ll love to see how different individuals interpret what felines mean to them. You like art? Great! You’ll probably never see a larger more variegated collection. Also, a lot of artists in the show aren’t cat people at all so this exhibition did prove challenging. Bottom line? Art is all around us on a daily basis, and a lot of people don’t realize that ... take a look around. You don’t have to shy away from an exhibition such as this just because you think you’re out of the "artistic loop."
What does it say about cats that some of the artists have no experience with cat, or have allergies?
I think that for any artist (or anyone, for that matter), it’s hard to go outside your comfort zone. But that’s what makes you a better artist -- a challenge -- something maybe you don’t even like (in my case, broccoli). And while you might not develop a taste for it, maybe you’ll gain some appreciation for why it is so beloved by so many others.
Will there be any special appearances at the opening you can tell me about? If you can't say, can you hint toward any?
This is Hollywood! You never know who might show up.
What work or works do you find most moving, remarkable or otherwise noteworthy?
That’s a tough question. I really like every single artist. What’s more exciting is seeing what they are coming up with. Like Christian Furr, who was the youngest artist to ever paint an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth. He created a great piece called "On the Threshold." It’s of his cat, Mr. Chunky. I’m also mad about Marc Dennis’ piece, because there is so much subtext in it. The pattern of the wallpaper, for example, is the symbol of the Crips gang. Lastly, I adore Charlotte Dumas' photograph, “Mausoleum Mohammed V Rabat Morocco 2012,” which is of a cat in Morocco. It’s sad and haunting, yet inherently beautiful.
Is this a one-time exhibition or do you hope to make it an annual thing?
That’s a wait-and-see kind of question, but I would love to take this to various other cities in the future.
Anything I haven't asked that you want to say about the show?
We will have more than 100 works of art on display. You’ll see pieces that are 8-by-10 inches, and also pieces that are 5-by-6 feet. We have a sculpture of a cat on a Roomba. Further, there’s a video component and performance art portion: The Internet Cat Video Festival is providing a very special bespoke rendition of its 2013 show, and it's adding a tease of what’s in store for 2014 as well. Lastly, this is the biggest multi-artist exhibition ever of cat-inspired works for sale.
If you live in Southern California or plan to visit, you can see Cat Art Show. It takes place two weekends (Jan. 25 to 26 and Feb. 1 to 2) at a gallery space located at 6205 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles. Sponsors include PicMonkey, Perrier, Peroni Nastro Azzurro, and 101/exhibit.
What's your favorite artwork that includes cats? Have you done any yourself? If so, post it in the comments.
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About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called "a high-powered mutant," which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster and Dogster.