Susan Michals is sitting at a bar thinking seriously about cats. By day, Culver City-based Michals works as a journalist, covering arts and culture and celebrities. By night and on weekends, she is the curator of Cat Art Show Los Angeles, a two-weekend, four-day group exhibition beginning Jan. 25, which promises "an examination of the psychology, inspiration and physical impact of cats in our lives." With opening night two weeks away, Michals' cellphone is a-twitter with emails and texts. "The theme is cat as muse and inspiration," she says, "as opposed to domesticated lap cat."
Though this is Michals' first gallery show, the lineup is impressive. That's partly because of the subject matter (cats, duh). And partly it's Michals. Over the years, she has cultivated good relationships with artists and gallerists. Many of the artists in the show are ones she's interviewed. One reason she's a journalist is to "make cool friendships." It was, she decided, "time to capitalize on those friendships."
"Once Tracey Emin and Ray Caesar confirmed, immediately, we had 40 artists who also confirmed. Then, I went to Shepard," she says, meaning Shepard Fairey. "He's allergic, but he loves cats." By summer's end, she had 77 artists.
"It felt like kismet," she says. "I went with artists not just that I knew but ones whose work I admire."
The artists she chose aren't necessarily "cat artists" per se, a decision that met with dismay among a certain faction of feline creatives. More than one angry Facebook message popped into her mailbox. "Not including me is like having a Cubism show and not including Picasso," one guy wrote.
"I have been painting cats exclusively for my 30 years as a professional artist in L.A.," seethed another. "But I suppose that doesn't matter to you ... in your art-world citadel."
"I'm sorry," she says now. "But curating a show is my discretion. Stylistically, aesthetically. I was disappointed that these gentlemen did not have a little more couth."
She pulls up images of the artwork on her phone. Caesar, considered the grandfather of digital art, contributed an artist's proof of one of his trademark creepy girls with large foreheads. She's in an elegant, blue dress holding a yowling tabby cat in her hands. "He's collected by Madonna and the Hearst family," Michals purrs. "He's in the Guggenheim."
Mattia Biagi contributed a sculpture of a black cat riding a Roomba (it will roll around the gallery). Rob Reger, creator of Emily the Strange, contributed a square piece entitled "40 Cats in 4 Directions." It spins on the wall. "Any way you look at it, there will be a cat that's upright."
Misako Inaoka made a double-headed cat sculpture, flanked by two kinetic mice. "They chirp when you walk by. We'll have to rope those off somehow so people don't step on them."Michals flicks the cellphone screen to bring up another image - a long, black obelisk of a window with a gray cat perched at the bottom. "This one is Christian Furr. He was the youngest artist ever to paint Queen Elizabeth. His cat's name is Mr. Chunky."
Hyperrealist Marc Dennis contributed a $26,000 painting of Snoop Dogg as a museum guard standing in front of a painting of a kitten. The blue-and-white bandana pattern in the background is a reference to the Crips. "I love how it makes Snoop look very classy," Michals says.
Marion Peck, who is married to Mark Ryden, offered Michals a sold-out giclee print entitled "Big White Pussy." "It's the only one left," Michals says. Peck's people messaged Michals last week with more good news: "Mark's in, too." Would Michals care for a limited-edition Ryden print of a cat jumping through a hoop?
She grins. "I wasn't gonna say no."
There's more. Heather Mattoon contributed a portrait of her imaginary cat, Brewster. She used to work in the wine business, then fell 30 feet and was paralyzed from the waist down. Cats were her only solace.
There's a painting of Al Pacino as Scarface standing atop a mountain of kitties. There are embroidered pieces, and quilts, and collages. There are paintings of the back of a cat, and paintings of the front.
There are case studies - of a cat fight, of Morris the Cat (a happy coincidence - 9Lives is one of the show's sponsors). There are celebrity pieces (a drawing by actress Mariel Hemingway's model daughter, Langley Fox). And conceptual pieces: One artist piled a massive clump of his cat's fur on top of a subwoofer. "It will play a recording of his cat purring."
Pieces range from $300 to $50,000, the most expensive being Tracey Emin's. It's a photograph of the artist holding her cat, done in the style of Gerhard Richter.
Michals could have kept acquiring more art. But the 3,000-square-foot space at 101/exhibit on Santa Monica Boulevard is already bursting at the seams. "You're gonna have to stop soon," people from the gallery told her. [See editor's note at the bottom of this story.]
Her biggest difficulty has been keeping track of the art. "You know, who's delivered? Who hasn't?" Currently, half of the pieces are at her house - either hanging on her wall or still in their shipping crates. Some are at the framers. And some remain locked inside that nebulous place from which artistic creation springs.
"The artist's mind as I know it is a procrastinating mind," Michals says. Luckily, she is big on following up. "Don't forget!" she emails people. "You're in the Cat Art Show!"Setup is in a few days. Michals hired the guy who produced and set-designed Banksy's 2006 Los Angeles show (the one with the pink elephant) to help her group the art, hang it and light it.
"I'm getting tons of cat people emailing me that they're so excited. They're saying 'I just love cats!' Fifty exclamation points," she says. "It's those people for whom it's important to have posters." Posters will be on sale for $20.
She will cater to the cat crowd only to a certain extent, though. When they ask, "Can I set up a booth to sell my cat crafts?" the answer is always a resounding "no."
"The cat is the vessel," she tells them. Big sigh. "This is not cutesy, wootsey, woohoo. This is serious. I am not saying it is 'cat-aclysmic,' or 'Caturday' or whatever. I mean, Tracey Emin is one of Britain's most famous living artists. Shepard Fairey is an icon. There's no fucking around."
Personally, Michals does not consider herself a crazy cat person. "I love cats. But the reason I chose the theme ... " Her voice trails off. "My cat, I see how she lies in the sun. She can be so sinewy and gorgeous, trying to get that last bit of sunshine. I feel that's a beautiful thing."
People have been inquiring if she'll do dogs next. Mostly, she tells them she'll have to see how this show goes. Though, when pressed, she admits she's "just not feeling it."
While there will be plenty of representational ones, there will be no actual cats at the show. Gallery managers were very specific about the "no animals allowed on premises" rule.
"If you bring in a cat and the cat doesn't like the crowd and freaks out and scratches someone," Michals explains, "I'll be liable."
And besides, she says, "I'm not serving Benadryl at the door."
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Editor's note: A previous version of this story provided the wrong location for the 101/exhibit gallery hosting this show. It's the gallery's new space on Santa Monica Boulevard, not the one on Melrose. We regret the error.