LOS ANGELES — In case you hadn’t noticed, the art world has gone cat crazy. Since the first Internet Cat Video Festival debuted at the Walker Art Center in the summer of 2012, it has become a wildly popular annual event, spawning similar festivals in Brooklyn, Boston, and Los Angeles. More straightforward gallery shows have also focused on felines, like 356 Mission’s Another Cats Show which featured hundreds of works by just as many artists, all depicting or inspired by cats. There are websites dedicated to inserting cats into famous paintings and listicles of top 10 cat paintings.
These cat shows and film festivals are more about people sharing an experience with each other, than they are about interacting with actual cats, as Jillian Steinhauer noted in this publication. The Cats-in-Residence Program, which opened last month at 356 Mission, takes a decidedly different approach, putting the cats themselves at the center of the experience. After previous iterations in New York and Connecticut, writer and artist Rhonda Lieberman has brought her social sculpture/performance piece/cat rescue project to LA for a month-long run.
Within a thunderdome-like enclosure designed by Freecell and Gia Wolff, Lieberman has commissioned sculptures and installations made specifically for cats by artists including Lisa Anne Auerbach, Dane Johnson, Cary Leibowitz, Rochelle Feinstein, Rob Pruitt, and others. Colorful tubes, towers, boxes, and cushions fill the fenced-in oval, functioning as sculptures, stage set, and shelter. There will always be nine cats in the space throughout the show’s run, available for adoption from Kitten Rescue, who will provide new cats (“purr-formers” as Lieberman puts it) whenever one finds a permanent home. Only nine people are allowed in the piece at one time, maintaining a balance between feline and human participants.
The opening reception a few Sundays ago was well-attended, but there was little of the art scene schmoozing that usually accompanies these events. Instead, everyone was focused on the cats. People waited patiently outside the gate for their turn, gazing longingly through the mesh at what they were about to experience. Once inside, many appeared as if they had fallen under a spell, oblivious to their human neighbors as they carefully navigated this feline-centered world, mesmerized by its inhabitants. More than simply art about cats, this was art for cats, engendering a unique kind of interaction between human and animal, performer and spectator.
“It’s like an interspecies leveling of the playing field, where you’re interacting with them, they’re performing, but you’re also being watched by them,” Lieberman told me. “We tend to objectify animals in our culture and we treat them like property. If you know an animal, that’s pretty violent to think that they don’t even have bodily freedom under the law, they’re property. This performance piece shows them as subjects, not just objects.”
Halfway through the afternoon, Lieberman gave a punny, tongue-in-cheek talk about the project, siting it within a revisionist art history full of cats. She clearly knew her stuff artwise, but wasn’t taking herself, or the project, too seriously. “The piece obviously immediately reads as fun and delightful, which is the main point, but it also has serious underpinnings, as it functions as an art installation, and also as it integrates art and rescue,” Lieberman told me afterwards. “Smuggling serious issues through something light is my favorite thing to do.”
The Cats-in-Residence Program runs through January 25 at 356 Mission. According to their website, only three cats have been adopted so far, meaning Angelenos will have to step it up to come close to the 18 cats in Connecticut or 25 in NY that have found homes through the piece.
The Cats-in-Residence Program by Rhonda Lieberman continues at 356 Mission (356 S Mission Road, Los Angeles) until January 25.