by Liberty Finch
What is it about cats that some people find so appealing and others find so appalling? Why are there generally two distinct animal camps: dog people and cat people? Why is it acceptable, in fact commonplace, to have one or two cats without arousing suspicion, but own multiple felines and you’re labeled the crazy cat lady?
Well within her right mind, artist Judy Chicago has made it a part of her life’s routine to keep cats–specifically six cats—at any given time. While collaborating with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, on the “Holocaust Project,” between 1985 and 1993, Chicago became interested in the treatment of animals, the “often callous disregard” for household pets and the distress placed on animals used in factory farming. In an attempt to make a difference—and to put some humanity into the animal society—she and Woodman decided to care for half a dozen cats.
latest book, “Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours,” and its watercolor
originals that are on display at Flanders Contemporary Art, chronicle an average
day-in-the-life of this lucky feline entourage who reside with the artists.
Over the years Chicago’s delivered some hard-hitting, cutting-edge work—from
her 1970’s feminist manifesto “The Dinner Party,” to examinations
of war and religion in 1993’s “Holocaust Project,” to last
year’s erotic “Fragments from the Delta of Venus.” Compared
to these, “Kitty City” might seem like a departure for this creative
intellectual, but take a closer look and it’s clear that Chicago is inextricably
linked to this work. These cats aren’t just illustrative subjects, they’re
family, and the bonds that exist among her and the pets is emotionally transcribed
into her paintings.
Chicago began sketching her cat family in 1993–94, and later delved into
research on Bestiaries, which, she explains, “were medieval texts using
the imaginary adventures of animals to make a number of moral points about human
life.” Because her work explores moral issues, the Bestiary format resonated
with her and she spent nearly five years on the project that would become “Kitty
The book and exhibit include historical anecdotes of her feline family, highlighted
with sketches, watercolors and occasional photographs by Woodman. This vivid,
illustrative history of her cats is a day-in-the-life pictorial of what Chicago
calls her “Ca(ts)st of Characters.” From dawn to dusk (and all through
the night) we get a glimpse of the cat shenanigans she deftly renders in warm
and inviting watercolors.
Some are amusing (Romeo waking Woodman at 6 a.m. or Milagro lapping from the
“I Can't Believe it's Not Butter” container); some are soothing
(“Afternoon Siestas” depicts all six cats asleep); and some are
somber (delicate Veronica hooked up to an IV, then peacefully laid to rest on
a blanket in “Death Strikes Again”). The images embody the cyclical
relationships we share with our pets.
Chicago also includes interesting “Feline Facts,” such as “Cats
sleep almost two-thirds of their lives, more than any other species,”
“Cats hear sounds two octaves higher than human beings,” and “Cats
see their human companions as pseudo-
parents because they took over from their real mothers, providing them with
food, drink, comfort and affection.”
As I write this review, two 10-week-old kittens are chasing each other at top
speed through my apartment–scaling the sofa and tumbling in a heap on
the floor. I rescued them from dire straits three weeks ago, taming the feral
siblings with my domestic wiles and generous amounts of tuna. They’ve
come a long way in just 21 days, moving from frightened, wild kittens living
in a cage to playful mousers who have free run of the house. Now my landlord’s
threatened to evict me if I don’t get rid of them, despite the fact that
I had a cat for most of the six years I’ve lived here (he’s since
passed away). I find this new “no pet” policy both puzzling and
I guess I could give them away, these little black fluff balls … find
them a good home and stay in my clean, affordable Northeast haven, alone. Or
I can take my chances in an expensive rental market … pack up the Powerbook
and mousey toys, knowing I’ll have companionship and unconditional love
this winter and beyond. So I ask myself, “What would Judy do?” ||
Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours is on display through Oct. 22
at Flanders Contemporary Art, 3012 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., 612-344-1700. Hours
are Tue.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and by appointment.