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Big cats, little cats, weird cats collide at this purrfect L.A. experience

For the record:
4:42 p.m. Jan. 16, 2024: A previous version of this story described L.A. artist Rabi’s multimedia artwork as photographic.

Since 2014, a recurring art show dedicated to cats has captured common feline actions (commandeering a pet parent’s lap, unflinchingly staring down an onlooker, shredding upholstered furniture and sweetly nuzzling) and just as many fantastical ones.

The Cat Art Show returns this week to celebrate a milestone. Starting Friday, the “Cat Art Show: The Tenth Anniversary” event will bring works from about 50 artists to Wallis Annenberg PetSpace in Playa Vista. From oil paintings to sculptures and tile mosaics, cats in all of their glory will have the run of the walls for three days. Also, for the first time, there will be a live pet adoption running concurrently with the show — paws and whiskers upstairs, cat-inspired art downstairs.

During the last decade, this group exhibition has become a must-see for gallery hoppers who have flocked to view the works of such boldface art-world names as Mark Ryden, Tracey Emin and Jill Greenberg. Likewise, cat lovers have often lined up at the art event, donning all manner of cat-covered paraphernalia to show their devotion to the animals of the hour. The Cat Art Show delivers just the right amount of camp but holds enough cool-kid appeal (think graphic artists Yusuke Hanai and Eric Haze) to attract those who don’t consider themselves furball fans.

“It’s grown to be a bit of everything — a lot more big collectors but a lot more of the general population too,” said Susan Michals, the Cat Art Show's founder and head curator.

Creating an event that celebrates Michals' two great loves was a no-brainer. She’s had cat companions her whole life, and she grew up with gallerist parents and has covered visual art extensively as a freelance journalist.

“I wanted to do a show that focused on emerging and established artists,” Michals said, “so I needed some great names to give validity … that this was a serious art show.”

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To start, she approached artists she’d interviewed professionally or knew personally. The prompt she gave them was: “Cats as muse.” Shepard Fairey was among the first artists tapped for the inaugural show along with Gary Baseman and Tim Biskup.

Multimedia artist Britt Ehringer was another Angeleno who Michals approached back in 2014 and he eagerly agreed, enticed by the opportunity to raise funds for different animal charities. (Proceeds from the art sales benefit animal charities; this year’s is Wallis Annenberg PetSpace's Extraordinary Care Fund.) Each year since, he's submitted pieces that pair pop culture figures such as Scarface, Frida Kahlo and Tupac Shakur with clusters of cats.

“My other work’s not so pop art-y, so this is my space to play,” Ehringer said, speaking of his cat-related contributions.

This year’s entry, “Kobe Entering the Kingdom of Kittens,” depicts Kobe Bryant soaring through the heavens as a coterie of cuties gaze at him (though, of course, a few appear aloof). The Lakers legend is joined by one of the artist’s two cats, Tofu, seen floating in the piece’s upper right-hand corner.

“There’s lots of different subcultures in the art world. I like how [the show] mashes up all those subcultures,” Ehringer said, noting that, over the years, the Cat Art Show has enabled him to establish friendships with artists he wouldn’t have otherwise met.

“Almost all of the art that I got in the first year was domestic. It’s definitely become more global in scope,” said Michals.

The 2024 collection of art is expected to include a comically disfigured painting by Vienna-based artist Eva Beresin, motion-filled sketches by Parisian Léo Forest, work by Korean Australian graphic artist YeahYeahChloe, and from the U.K., Annie Montgomerie’s handcrafted vintage toy-style kitties dressed in darling play clothes made from upcycled fabrics.

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“News of the Cat Art Show has traveled around the world and was known to me here in Scotland,” said collage artist Lola Dupre, who’s based outside of Glasgow and is participating for the second time. “These shows include some of the greatest artists making work today, so it is an honor and privilege to include my work.”

Feline portraiture is a common part of her distortion-heavy cut-paper practice, and she frequently takes inspiration from her own companion, Charlie. This year’s entry, “Squits,” was inspired by a specimen she encountered while visiting a cat colony in Granada, Spain.

“Since I was young, I have known many cats, each one an individual,” Dupre said. “Their independence, energy and wildness I find fascinating.”

What makes the Cat Art Show compelling is that each artist views the muse in their own personal way, from impish to serene. Whatever way an attendee feels about cats, they’re likely to see that emotion reflected in various forms including glass sculpture, wooden figurine or porcelain candy dish.

“They are evil but they’re also awesome. And people have held that contradiction about cats since the dawn of time,” said L.A. street artist Rabi whose "Good Luck" artwork will be featured in the Cat Art Show. “People have thought cats were their gods and then demons and devils.”

Drawn to exploring the concepts of duality and contradiction, he feels that cats are the perfect case study. His artwork for the show — two multimedia triptychs — combines images of broken mirrors, black cats and the number 13. “I loved the idea of challenging these bad luck archetypes and then calling it good luck,” he said.

Rabi tipped his hat to Michals for capturing and amplifying the dopamine rush a person gets from watching, and re-watching, the perfect cat video on social media.

“I think Susan does a really good job of bringing that culture to a tangible environment where we can all see things in real time, in real life, together," he said.

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In addition to showing all the ways in which cats are “an art form in themselves,” Michals aims for the Cat Art Show to dash stereotypes about what it means to fancy cats.

“What I saw with the first show was that the people that came did not fit the model of the hoarder, spinster, crazy cat lady,” she said. “I saw that audience and I was like, 'These people are severely underrepresented and underserved as consumers and art appreciators.'

“Really, part of what these shows are about is to showcase my audience and say: 'Look at these people. They love their animals and they love art,’" she said. "They do not represent the negative connotations associated at all.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.