KCAC Forum Magazine November 1980
THE FASCINATING CAT
by Edward Navone
Since there are a number of paintings by well-known artists in The Fascinating Cat exhibition (at the Mulvane Art Center during October), it ought to be of particular interest to members of the Coalition. But there is something about the cat that has brought the best from many unschooled artists; they steal the show.
Over the years artists who consider themselves superior have tried to devise ways of having their works exhibited in shows which keep them segregated from the works of the unschooled. Unfortunately the same people who enter regional competitive shows in which the judges, always outside people, pick work that looks like what is current in the magazines. That in turn becomes a pressure for regional artists to paint a la mode – not much innovation there.
Primitives or Naifs, on the other hand, are always trying to get respect for their efforts by seeking exhibitions in museums and galleries. Curiously, some so-called “advanced” artist have become wary that formal sophistication can lead to unimaginative repetition, for which the only solution is a conscious effort to liberate oneself from this. A great deal of modern art is the result of both a satiation with sophistication and a rebellious move to newer things. Everyone from Picasso to the German expressionists found his way to the primitive artists. As a result both the Douanier Rousseau and the same Picasso figure into our picture of the 20th century. To paraphrase the Douanier, “I in the modern manner, Picasso in the Egyptian!”
So all of this leads to The Fascinating Cat exhibition at the Mulvane. Among the “sophisticates” is Edward Hopper’s Five Cats, a study of same, quite in the same manner as the famous studies of heads and gestures by artists such as Watteau. It is not one of the artist’s famous works, but rather another side of him. There are several other works in this vein: pieces which represent cats in various poses. If you’re getting the idea that this writer is less than fascinated by theses cats, you’re right because in this show the Fascinating Cats are the works of either primitive artists or of skilled artists who threw caution to the winds and drug into the problem of feline nature.
Of course, the previous remarks about “us” and “them” really hits a nerve when the matter of expressiveness is raised. It is certainly possible, and often a fact, that many artists really mute their expression in the process of acquiring skill. It is also interesting to see how certain of the primitives have approached the look of the work of the well-known artists.
One anonymous work done by stencils comes so close to the elegant neo-cubist qualities of Charles Demuth that the question of distinction between the two kinds is posed forcefully. Malcah Zeldis has produced three paintings in this show which in their witty use of form also tend in the same direction. Blue Cat shows a pie-faced cat whose bodylines carry a languid elegance and monumental scale to a doll house like room with little chairs. In fact each of Zeldis’s is as complete both in form and in its sophisticated wit.
Cat in a Garden by Mary Shelley is a curious kind of archaic fellow, carved in relief and surrounded by equally tangible clouds, sky, plants, trees, and a milk bottle. The most moving aspect of this – the perplexed expression on the cat’s face – is perhaps related to its woody Pinocchio-like existence, as though awaiting some Giapetto to make it a real live cat!
Mattie Lou O’Kelley’s Barnyard Cat, is a giant, white cotton-like creature with a very “age of Reason” smile, walking among some candy-like bushes and trees.
Among the works of this show is a group which expresses the idea of a portrait of the artist metaphorically, through the cat. David Dreisbach, whose works have been exhibited nationally for years and is a renowned printmaker, has such a piece in this exhibition. Entitled Tabby or Not Tabby, it contains three strange little cats, one with a bird in its mouth, one making a black-eyed wink, and a third prancing in the grand manner. In addition, there is one large cat with a humanoid face and a funny hat. This is the one that seems to be the artist looking at us and at himself. The dominant tones are two values of silver gray contrasted against accents of black and ochre. A large Cat in Paradise by Jenny Novik shows another humanized cat, very Germanic in fact, with a handle-bar “moustache” a la Charlemagne. A red and black horn like crown helps the conceit. The eyes are those of a person, definitely not a cat. This pink and red dominant painting depicts things that must comprise a heaven for cats – birds and fish, plus a few flowers and butterflies.
Amidst the many anthropomorphic cats, the most powerful is by Elizabeth Layton. Grandma Layton’s House Cat is the title of a fascinating work showing a cat and its hungry invasion of a refrigerator full of goodies. The delicate and sophisticated fusing of cat and human is certainly one of the most awesome and moving aspects of the work. The tail is supporting a candy wrapper, just one of the many signs of nasty and lusty consumption of candies, red salmon, eggs, peas and other things. The triumph is completed by a package of hot dogs – appropriately torn right across the label. The color is always subtle, a compliment to the sensitive line that is used to define the basic form. It is always a special experience to see Layton’s work.
Sculptures have a special place in this exhibition. Pucho Odio has several wooden carvings of cats in an almost one-to-one scale. They are painted and have curiously abstracted archaic muteness somewhat like the work of the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio from the 13th century.
There is a small sculptural composition by Joan Danzinger of a couple holding their huge cat. This delightful work contains the two people with white featureless faces which contrast with the fully painted animal on the laps. One could say the couple “recedes” as the cat “increases”
Jack Wright is a justly well-know ceramist. Perhaps less well known is his equal ability in ceramic sculpture, especially in portraiture. The work he has in this exhibition is a remarkable relief of a chest of drawers on top of which is a plant, a bowl, and a sleeping cat. While the work is a relief, it can also be said that the nature of it is environmental, and therefore akin to certain types of recent modern art.
To return to my original premise regarding the professional background of the artists and the effects it has on the art, in this show distinction between school and unschooled artists may be clear as far as skill is concerned, but in terms of expression there is none. As a matter of fact, certain works such as Layton’s question the validity of such distinctions. If a work is the center of a total concept, and if it is direct and intense, it is an impressive accomplishment. Period!