My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self reliant like the cat --
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn".
Inns are not residences.
— Marianne Moore
Cats preside over a house divided: they elicit either affection or contempt. Cats are disarmingly aloof. Their aplomb makes them appear arrogant and vain. Their independence makes them appear ungracious and proud. To any American reader of the day, Marianne Moore’s use of the phrase 'self reliance' is an obvious reference to Emerson's essay of the same name. But she shapes Emerson's ethical code into that of the cat, who never encumbers its host with its presence. They are animals in which the best upbringing is built into a pathology. Detached and unintrusive, 'it takes its prey to privacy'.
Michael Snape's first venture into this subject was not quite by love or fascination, but by default, through a commission from the Cat Protection Society, a society that cares for stray and homeless cats. It was perhaps because Snape was not motivated by any personal predilection that he was able to reflect on them more dispassionately. Thus these works are not so much a homage to his love of cats, but a kind of pictorial analysis – in the way that Cubism was an analysis, one of distortions and intuitions – of the spaces that cats occupy, the movements that they make. It is an aesthetic zoology that attempts to define, if any, the quintessence of the feline space-time continuum.
It is because of this sense that cats appear to be contained in an alternate sphere of being, one of insouciant grace, laconic and unperturbed by the world around them that they have exerted a fascination on artists that is very different from that of their domestic counterpart, dogs. This is because dogs share the same dominion as humans, while cats occupy another. Dogs are loyal, cats are fickle. In between bouts of languor, there is an intensity (a 'feline intensity') of expression that cats have, whose corollary in dogs is concern. Dogs are present, cats are forever transient. T. S. Eliot saw the metaphor for this elusiveness in the cat’s very own name: 'The name that no human research can discover—/ But the THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.' Baudelaire recalled them as atavistic denizens of the Orient as enigmatic as the sphinx, and as lazy as dissolute pharaohs ('Ils prennent on songeant les nobles attitudes/Des Grands Sphinxs allongés au fond des solitudes/Qui semblent s'endormir dans un rêve sans fin'). The Ancient Egyptians treated cats as sacred and even worshipped them in the figure of the erotic cat-goddess Bast. There are countless examples of cat mummies. In a far less fanciful vein, but with striking frankness and immediacy, in response to Baudelaire, Manet composed one of his most memorable etchings of a cat on a terrace nuzzling flowers. Whereas in poetry cats disappear within the nimbus of figurative language, in art they are notoriously difficult to represent. They do not lend themselves to the static or the mundane, even though many of them inhabit some of the most unremarkable material worlds.
These works are large sculpture-paintings; wooden panels that have been inscribed with shapes, much in the manner of a woodcut, then overlaid with paint, so as to accentuate the negative imprint of the form. In The Prospect of Contemplation they cavort aimlessly against an iridescent ground. In The Field they occupy a world of rococo colour in a place with no gravitational pull (perhaps recalling the way that cats can perform extraordinary physical feats like landing on their feet from a fall); in Truce they sink calmly into a rich orange field, like animals on an exotic wall hanging, except these animals are more lyrically contorted than simply decorative. The plywood is ground out to different depths, so that some sheets reveal themselves as concentric layers when gouged with circular shapes. The Cubists and their followers would often speak of the 'third dimension' that would come from the disaggregation of space. By equivalence, this vivid utopia is the 'feline dimension', what Eliot called the cat's 'ineffable effable'. The cat shapes are seldom naturalistic. Rather they are more evocative of the animal’s different forms of mobility: relaxed, stretched, supine, prone or alert.
Of a similar stripy colourfulness, bordering on visual violence, Dry Sherry depicts a small community of cats in a garden of insects and bottles in various poses of play. The forms echo and rhyme with one another so that in some places they look like combining another's qualities: the bottle on the bottom left is becoming a cat; a cat's tail is like that of a snake or insect. Cats' owners often muse about what their pets got up to of a day, something they will never know. It may not have been very much, but it is characteristic of these creatures that it is asked of them more than other pets, simply because they are surrounded by a nimbus of inscrutability. If this were possible, this picture offers the cat’s sublime. It speaks the unspeakable, but instead of Talmudic secrets it divulges the mundane world of cats' preoccupations — between naps of course.
Other panels, such as The Scrap reflect a less domesticated animal, one that reflects the animal's lost predatory past. In observing the way that cats taunt their prey – like mice, skinks, cockroaches – zoologists have commented that they are reliving the prelude to a kill that is now robbed of them in having food served to them without a fight. Like the magnetism of Keats' eternal Belle Dame sans Merci, there is sometimes something perversely alluring in unrepentant cruelty, where death is an unerring and necessary reality. Play Lunch is scored with a narrow line of iridescence that is otherwise only the light brown of the raw wood. Split across three tiers, which is the formal makeup of most of these works, the cats appear to be in state of urgency: attentive, hungry. The bodies are grotesquely distorted, either divided into separate planes in brutal abstracted strips, or lithely protracted, evoking the serpentine extension of the torso body before pouncing. As a humorous afterthought to the anticipation of violence one notices that the bird that one cat is so intently watching is not on a branch, but perched on another cat's tail.
The extended feline body is yet more pronounced, but less violent and irate in a panel of more subdued earth tones (Cat Life). In Two Humps the upper strip of the body is sinuously elongated, as if Snape is encompassing two or three movements at once; on lower panels they seem to disappear into the colour, embedding themselves contentedly into its benign abstract thickness. They are strongly reminiscent of rock painting from Northern Arnhem Land, especially for the way in which the figure-ground binary is subdued, and the rock appears to house the form rather than simply support. There is no desire on Snape's part for gratuitous cultural references, but what is important here is that the way in which the work of art offers a stable home for the form. In an age that is skeptical of the sacred, these works are nonetheless consoling.
One of the 'jobs' of artists is to show us what is under our noses, or to help us see what we have always been wanting to see; or to alert us to what it is we really ought to be seeing. It is important to remember that the Cubists considered what they were doing, in some mystical way, as a sort of realism. Less mystically, Michael Snape’s cats are of the same genus of realism, yet belongs to creatures of a different genus from us, but whose difference we find either threatening or endearing. Either way, they are animals on which we spend a great deal of imaginative energy. This exhibition is devoted to the kind of embellishments and speculations that we mere humans foist on entities who know that to keep this spell alive, it is best to stay silent.