The title of this painting is in the painting, nested within the greater visual feast. Best damn CATS painting in the world, according to a recent poll of people in this room.
But Harriet was not content merely to leave it at that.
Things are about to get sweaty and complicated here, and a closer look will be required to sort it all out. Expect some dry reading ahead, along with an off the wall risqué ending. And for some there will be this question as well: “How could a painting that looks like this really be about that!?”
To answer that question, we will be exploring CATS through digital imagery, where portions can be isolated and enlarged, leading to an early exposure of the artist’s sleight of hand. In viewing the actual painting, where the experience is completely visceral and the dominant perception is one of a mesmerizing totality, emotion happily triumphs over analysis, and the sleight of hand becomes much more impenetrable, as the mind’s eye is too busy being seduced to look for it.
We see three costumed cats, each staring back at us. The cat in the middle (“Mid Cat”), unlike his colorful mates, is deliberately de-emphasized, blending into the neutral backdrop. He has one eye covered, but the location of the eye that we can see, along with the frontal orientation of his leonine mane, strongly suggests that Mid Cat is looking straight out at us. Also, rather oddly, Mid Cat’s bare human legs are exposed through his costume. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this, but this isn’t the first time we’ve been stumped by Harriet and it won’t be the last, so we’ll make a mental note of it and move on. With a work as beguiling and tightly wrought as this one there is already a surfeit of riches, and it seems beside the point to try to uncover yet more.
Or at least that’s what we thought. But as our reliance on the monitor deepens, the subject becomes larger, our focus more narrow, and our perception more analytical, and it isn’t long before there is a strong suspicion that we are being played. By isolating and enlarging Mid Cat’s face, it becomes obvious that Harriet has turned Mid Cat’s head towards Red Cat and that the eye we are seeing is actually Mid Cat’s other eye (i.e. his right eye, on the left as we look at him). And crucial to her overall intent, she’s deliberately placed it exactly where the missing left eye would be in a frontal view. And what is the right eye looking at? Red Cat’s crotch, unerringly.
So what else might benefit from a closer look? Mid Cat’s exposed legs might benefit, but even more than that, what’s between Mid Cat’s legs might benefit. Harriet’s dot camouflage gets a little more strategic here, but it’s a fake cover-up. The jig is up. A schlong is a schlong.
We didn’t set out to highlight the salacious side of Harriet Young’s art. In fact, in the beginning we weren’t even aware of it. Since Hollywood and Vegas aren’t usually thought of as hotbeds of carnal restraint, maybe we should have suspected as much going in. Anyway, all of that is beside the point. In the end, the intent is to go where the artist is taking us, and in CATS she is taking us for a ride on the Libido Express. All aboard.
(Note: the musical CATS was first performed on the London stage in 1981, and opened in New York in 1982, long after Harriet had left Las Vegas. It obviously belongs in a “Broadway” category, but until we can find more paintings to populate it, we’ll be keeping CATS here.)