Last weekend, my husband and I ventured to Downtown Los Angeles to attend Cat Art Show 3: The Sequel Returns Again. With more than 140 pieces by 100 renowned and emerging international artists, it certainly didn’t disappoint! Featuring everything from paintings and photography to sculptures and cat dolls, this exhibit has everything cat – and art – lovers could wish for.
First, what is the Cat Art Show?
Created by Susan Michals in 2014, the Cat Art Show is a celebration of both art and our feline friends. As an arts and culture journalist, as well as a cat lover, Susan came up with idea because she decided it was about time to marry the two. When I asked her what it is about cats in art that speaks to people, she told me there are several reasons. “Their physical beauty – lithe and sinewy; then there’s their PURRsonalities; they could be considered perfect artistic fodder, really, because they are so multi-layered. One moment they can be your bestie, next thing you know, you’re getting a kitty swipe!”
It’s important to Susan to inspire people. “Art is visceral,” she says. “If a piece evokes emotion for you, then my job – and more important, that of the artist – is done.”
This is the Cat Art Show’s third year. Besides having more art pieces this year, it also had its smallest piece of art – created by artist Michael Banks on a Scrabble tile. That one was fun – you had to go up a small ladder and use a magnifying glass hanging on the wall to see it. Susan says there were a lot of smaller works this time around, and her co-curator, Daniel, put them to good and creative use, spelling out the word “pussycat” on two walls. “I’m always amazed at what the artists come up with,” Susan says. “Some use the image of the feline symbolically … some just showcase the reasons why we love them so much.”
Artists talk art – and cats
Before attending the show, I talked to three of the featured artists:
- Joann Biondi is a Miami-based photographer and creator of Lorenzo the Cat feline art photography. Check out her work at lorenzothecat.com.
- Paul Koudounaris is an author and photographer from Los Angeles. He has a PhD in art history and is a well-known figure in the field of macabre art and history. Visit him at empiredelamort.com or on Instagram at @hexenkult.
- Artist Lucia Heffernan’s paintings put animals in human situations, giving them their own voices and personalities. You’ll find her work at luciaheffernan.com and on Instagram at #luciaheffernan.
I asked them all some specific questions about cats and art. Here’s what they had to say:
Cats are often elusive. What’s the most challenging aspect of capturing cats artistically?
As a photographer, Joann says there’s only one thing that matters most: patience. “Cats can be temperamental,” she says. “They will refuse to sit up or lie down or look in the direction that you want them to look. So you can have all the technical skills in the world, but if you are not capable of waiting hours and hours for the cat to come around and give you what you want, you will never get images that have meaning in them.” She also points out that you need to be willing to live with sore knees from crawling around on hard flooring to get the shot you want. “I wear knee pads when I work,” she says.
Paul photographs a costume series with his cat as the model. He agrees that cats can be elusive — if they don’t trust you. But he points out that we can say the same thing for humans. “Trust is fundamental in the relationship between both cat and human and artist and model. But in the case of a feline model, there’s something beyond trust that is needed, and that’s communication,” he says.
He explains that it’s easy to communicate with a human model, but a feline model is a lot more challenging – but also highly rewarding when you can break the barrier between species. “That’s part of the reason the series I do with my cat is so meaningful to me,” he says. “Aside from a photographic project, it’s also an exercise in interspecies communication. My cat is highly intelligent, and it’s what I would call an intuitive intelligence. I know her well, but she knows me better. I can’t articulate what I want her to do in a way she’ll understand, but I think I give off numerous subtle clues in my own body language and reactions to what she is doing, and I think she decodes those and then styles herself accordingly.
For Lucia, the challenge is incorporating cats’ personalities into the painting and telling a convincing story. “Cat memes serve as a parody to humans who deal with all sorts of life situations,” she says. “The collision between cats and human sensibilities creates a whimsical, theatrical and often humorous world that viewers can relate to on a visceral or emotional level.”
Every cat lover has a favorite cat body part — ear floofs, toe beans, paw tufts, noses, whiskers, cat eyes — if not more! What is your favorite part of a cat to capture?
For Joann, it’s always about the eyes. She anchors her photos around the eyes and if she doesn’t get them right, she deletes the image. “Aside from being beautiful, cats’ eyes are very expressive,” she says. “They can appear alert, tired, sad, curious, angry. They also change depending upon the lighting. In low light the pupils are huge and the eyes look black. In bright sunlight the pupils shrink to tiny slits and just about disappear.
Paul agrees. “It’s the eyes,” he says. “Cats’ eyes are very expressive, and they’re so big and beautiful and perfectly shaped that if you really get the eyes right it draws in the viewer. When it comes to photos I take with my cat, it might be in every other respect the greatest photo you’ve ever seen, but if the eyes aren’t right or they’re out of focus, I’ll toss it.”
Again, the eyes have it! Lucia says they are the windows to their souls. “When I paint them, that’s when the painting comes alive.”
Are there any other cat artists you admire or that inspire you?
For Joann there are many. “The anthropomorphized paintings of Susan Herbert’s Shakespearean cats and Eldar Zakirov’s cats of the Hermitage. The tattoo-like illustrations of Kazuaki Horitomo. The soft surrealism of Marion Peck. The bold impressionism of Rachel Schlueter. And the exquisite realism of Diane Hoeptner.”
Paul respects anyone who is working with cats as subjects. “I am genuinely fascinated by the way they choose to represent what it means to be feline,” he says. But he finds his own inspiration. “In truth, I consider the portrait series I do with my cat to be self-portraits, just with my cat playing the roles I envision. So the project is really about me coming up with characters and outfits and finding a way through the amazing bond my cat and I have to get her to play a role I envision. It’s not really art that tries to portray something that is innately feline … it’s really about allowing the feline to portray something that is innately human.
Lucia says she’s not familiar with artists who paint only cats, but there a few who paint everything, including cats that she admires. “Artists like Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Naoto Hattori, Cinta Vidal, Marina Dieul, just to name a few. It’s exciting to see all the artwork at the Cat Art Show.”
To you, what is the most iconic piece of vintage cat art?
Joann adores two vintage cat artists who both had sad lives. “Photographer Harry Whittier Frees photographed kittens in clothes with elaborate stagecraft in the 1930s. He committed suicide. And then there was Lois Wain who suffered from schizophrenia and worked on most of his psychedelic cat paintings while in psychiatric hospitals.” She says that both of them created amazing work.
Paul went back a bit further for this one. “It would have to be one of the ancient Egyptian statues from Bubastis,” he says. “Because in truth they were icons – they were sacred statues from the city of cats during the zenith of feline culture. I don’t think we fully understand what cats were at that point in time. We think they’re big now just because they’re all over the internet. Back then, they weren’t just big, they were sacred, and that statuary was a representation of divinity.
“I love Le Chat Noir, by Theophile Steinlen,” Lucia says. “To me it is a powerful iconic piece with the black cat, red letters and yellow background.” She also loves Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats by Abraham Teniers, because it plays into what she paints – animals doing human things.
Do you have any tips for cat lovers who want to include feline art in their homes?
Joann’s tip is the same as choosing any type of art: “Find pieces that speak to you, that make you feel something when you look at them. And, please, don’t choose a work of art that simply matches your sofa.”
For Paul, the greatest work of feline art is the feline itself. “If you have one with whom you have bonded, you already have your own personal masterpiece.”
Lucia’s advice is simple: “Choose a piece that speaks to you and makes you happy.”
Check out the show!
The Cat Art Show is open through June 24, so there’s still time to catch it! It’s open from 12 to 5 p.m. daily at Think Tank Gallery, 939 Maple Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90015.
Every year, works on view at the Cat Art Show are for sale and a percentage of those sales are donated to a cat-related organization. This year, the show’s charity beneficiary is The Ian Somerhalder Foundation, founded by actors and philanthropists Ian Somerhalder and Nikki Reed to empower, educate and collaborate with people and projects to positively impact the planet and its creatures.
The closing party will take place this Saturday, June 23, from 7 to 10 p.m. Tickets are $25 each, and 10 percent of the proceeds will benefit Kitten Rescue LA, which is bringing in 20 adoptable kitties for the kitty cuddle party, where you can meet and mingle with your potential new forever friend. And Iza La Vamp and Vanessa Burgundy will give a special cat-centric PURRlesque PURRformance at 9 p.m. Visit catartshow.com for more information.
Save the date
Susan is also the creator of CatCon, the biggest experience in the world dedicated to cat and pop culture. This year, it takes place August 4 – 5 at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, California, and it’s the biggest one yet, featuring more than 170 exhibitors, dozens of photo opps, a make-your-own catnip toy bar, cat art tutorials and much more.
Human talent includes Ian Somerhalder, Moshow the Cat Rapper and Georgia Hardstark from the My Favorite Murder podcast. Feline talent includes Lil BUB, and up-and-comers like Merlin Ragdoll and Sir Thomas Trueheart. More than 16,000 attendees are expected this year. Keep an eye on Catster.com for more details as we get closer to the event.
Thumbnail: VIP Opening of Cat Art Show 3: The Sequel Returns Again. Photography by Marlene Picard Photo, courtesy Cat Art Show.