Artists Are Still Obsessed With Cats, From Shepard Fairey to Tracey Emin

12.16.13 Kyle Chayka

Cats may be the single unrelenting internet meme of the decade, but the semi-domesticated, always independent, mostly unfriendly feline has been a favorite subject of the art world for centuries: Check out the Chinese painter Mao Yi’s depiction of frolicking felines from the 12th century or the vicious creature painted in 1939 by Picasso. A new exhibition called Cat Art Show in Los Angeles celebrates the cat’s omnipresence in contemporary art, with artists ranging from Shepard Fairey to FAILE and Tracey Emin.

Cats have “played the role of muse to many an artist,” said Cat Art Show’s curator Susan Michals, citing their appearance in the work of the Impressionist painter Renoir, Thomas Gainborough, and Louis Wain, a 19th-century English artist whose creeping schizophrenia caused him to draw pre-psychedelic felines covered in hallucinatory patterns.

It wasn’t difficult to find artists working today who shared a secret cat obsession. “After I got a couple of artists on board, the project snowballed,” Michals said. “Within three weeks I had over 40 artists.” Emin, one of the biggest names on the list, “is a well known cat lover,” the curator explained. The Young British Artist’s piece is a dual portrait of herself and her cat Docket painted in the photorealistic style of Gerhard Richter.

Nicholas Chistiakov, Orange Cat (2013), Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches

Nicholas Chistiakov’s Orange Cat is a feline with its jaws stretched comically wide that somehow looks sorta sexual (pussy cat?). In A Great Big Giant World,  Marc Dennis imagines Snoop Dogg staring adoring at an enormous kitten painting. Christian Furr (perfect name) contributes “On the Threshold,” a tall, black oil painting with a watchful cat glaring over the bottom.

In the case of Shepard Fairey, the curatorial process was more difficult. “He found the theme of the show to be a great challenge for him as an artist,” Michals said. “He’s actually allergic to cats.”

Frank Stefanko, The Lookout (1974), Silver gelatin print, 16 x20

We’re hoping Fairey’s contribution is a portrait of the curator’s cat, a gigantic Maine Coon (the breed can weight up to 35 pounds). After all, Obama’s not running for election this time around the politically inclined artist will be in need of a new hagiographic subject. “Meow” just happens to fit perfectly in where “hope” once was, which is a good metaphor for… something.

Cat Art Show opens in Los Angeles January 25 at 6205 Santa Monica Boulevard. Lead image: Marc Dennis, A Great Big Giant World, 2013, oil on linen, 54 x 62 inches.