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Fake Fur, Real Art?

If you believed 'Why Cats Paint,' you'll believe 'Why Paint Cats'

October 06, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The voice coming over the line from Wellington, New Zealand--an unmistakably Kiwi voice--crackles with mock indignation. His new book a hoax? "The very nature of hoaxes is that a hoaxer would never admit to hoaxing," Burton Silver says. "But this book is not a hoax, of course."

Uh-huh.

So, Burton Silver, you're telling us that there are artists who paint cats--not pictures of cats, but using cats as the canvas--and that said cats submit to the indignity of being tarted up as a butterfly, a peacock, a giraffe, a pig, a leopard, a tartan blanket, a skeleton or Santa Claus--or just to match their owners' home decor?

Is it just possible that the fancied-up felines in "Why Paint Cats: The Ethics of Feline Aesthetics" (Ten Speed Press) are computer-generated creations?

"We never talk about how the artwork is done," replies Silver, adding, "I stand by everything that's said in this book."

Sure. And cats are born artists, too, as Silver and photographer Heather Busch showed us in an earlier collaboration, "Why Cats Paint," their earlier book that has sold 675,000 copies.

About the new book one thing is indisputable: It is very, very funny. Now, it's no secret that in the cats-as-artists book, Silver and Busch were spoofing art criticism. Still, Silver says, "some of the art world took it seriously and wrote reviews in a very serious way and clearly had no idea it was a parody."

Others played along. Silver particularly delights in telling how the Sunday Times of London piled parody upon parody and "ripped into the book for not including the Renaissance period of cat art."

Silver notes, "It's very hard to use human artists to spoof artists and the art world. It's crazy what's happening. It's art if you say it's art, no matter what you throw out there. I could take a carrot and split it in half and put a line of toothpaste down each half and put a little spotlight on it and, provided I put [a price of] $1,500 on it, it would be regarded with some concern."

So now, it's the cats who are themselves getting painted. And, just as some people believed--really believed--that cats paint, there are those who believe that there are artists who really painted these cats, and for fees in the five figures.

Asked what he is spoofing this time--cat lovers, animal activists or perhaps psychiatrists?--Silver seems to be suppressing a laugh as he shoots back, "It's not a spoof. Who said it was a spoof? Why are you people all so negative?"

His text is tongue-in-cheek scholarly, complete with footnotes and a bibliography. And there are two book cover blurbs praising the book, one from the nonexistent L.A. Art Times, whose reviewer lauded it as a celebration of "an exciting new art form," the other from the nonexistent U.K. Cat Weekly, which found it "a work that will be truly inspiring for some and deeply disturbing for others."

Putting to good use his degrees in psychology and sociology, he has sprinkled the text with references to obscure cultures that pioneered cat painting. He has his "artists" and "critics" spouting scholarly sounding prose about things such as transforming cat into god, observations on contemporary sexual mores, how painting cats gives us new insights into their psyches and even the palliative potential of painted cats.

The footnotes cite activist organizations including Artists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and F.L.A.P (Free Laboratory Animals Permanently), C.R.O.K.(Cats Rule OK) and the Journal of the Embellished Cat. Vol. II. "Just because you can't find such an organization doesn't mean to say it's not true," Silver insists. The "artists," some of whom appear quite mad, natter on in the book about "kinetic observationalism" (how painting cats with moons and stars enables them to tune into the cosmos), "neo-totemism" (the appropriation of the art of indigenous cultures to assuage imperialist guilt), "transfigurationalism" (toward a more spiritual understanding of the cat), "re-environmentalism" (imposing the image of another species onto the cat to increase our understanding of territorial prerogative) and "transmogrificationism" (confronting our prejudices by transforming the lovable cat into a less appealing species).

Asked for phone numbers for some of the artists, Silver regretted that they were unavailable. Matt Gauri, an Angeleno who became a full-time cat painter after being fired from his pet motel grooming job over a mix-up in which he painted the wrong white cat to resemble a pig, was, alas, in India, Silver said. San Francisco hairstylists Jackie and Jay Bloomfield had given up cat painting after an Arab client's cat, on whom they'd painted Arabic slogans, was either run over or mutilated by anti-Islamists.

Likewise, the books in Silver's selected bibliography were, well, elusive. Among these: "Simply Unfurgettable," "The Cat as Canvas," "Purrmutations" and "Financially Feline."

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